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Food: Raising Crop Productivity Via Plant Mutation

Plant mutation could boost crop yields and help tackle food crisis - UN official

12 August 2008 - Plant mutation, a scientific technique that dramatically improves crop productivity, could be part of the solution to the current food and energy crisis that threatens to plunge millions worldwide into hunger, according to a United Nations expert on the subject.

"At a time when the world is facing a food and energy crisis of unprecedented proportions, plant mutation breeding can be a catalyst in developing improved, higher-yield, saline-resistant, sturdier crop varieties," Werner Burkart, Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told a conference that opened at the Agency's headquarters in Vienna today.

The International Symposium on Induced Mutations in Plants brings together over 600 scientists, researchers and plant breeders from around the world to discuss the latest innovations and how they can improve crop varieties in the future.

Mr. Burkart, who is Head of the Agency's Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, said 2008 will be remembered as the year in which the world understood the realities of climate change, the food crisis and the energy debate in its link to hunger.

"These big issues are intimately interlinked, and translate in the agronomy field into a competition between food, feed and fuel for soil, water, human and financial resources," he noted.

He pointed out that plant mutation has been used for more than 80 years, with mutagens such as X-rays, gamma radiation and chemicals having been used to produce plant varieties that are disease-resistant or best suited to conditions such as high altitude or saline soil.

One success story is mutant barley varieties that thrive at altitudes of up to 5,000 metres in the highlands of Peru and which led to a 52 per cent increase in yields between 1978 and 2002.

The IAEA has worked with radiation technology to induce mutation in plants since the 1960s and today the technology is being used worldwide.

"Mutation induction has proven flexible, workable, and ready to use on any crop," said Mr. Burkart, adding that it is a non-hazardous and low-cost technology that has the ability to address current challenges in agriculture.

"The breeding of new mutant varieties - with a higher yield potential, more productive biomass for energy use, better nutrient composition for human health, better adaptation to climate change and variability, or a heightened potential to sequester carbon - will be the driving force to meet the challenges of the 21st century," he stated.

The four-day conference is a joint collaboration by the IAEA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the eighth of its kind. The first was held in 1969.


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