IAEA and FAO launch Atoms4Food initiative

19 October 2023

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have launched the Atoms4Food initiative to help boost food security and tackle growing world hunger. It will support countries to use innovative nuclear techniques in enhancing agricultural productivity, reducing food losses, ensuring food safety, improving nutrition, and adapting to the challenges of climate change.

“We find ourselves in an unprecedented time, where hunger and malnutrition are on the rise, posing a threat to humanity,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and FAO Director General Qu Dongyu Director said in a joint statement. “The Atoms4Food Initiative seeks to provide member states with ground-breaking solutions tailored to their specific needs and circumstances, by harnessing the advantages of nuclear techniques along with other advanced technologies.”

In 2022, between 691m and 783m people faced hunger while 3.1bn, more than 40% of the global population, could not afford a healthy diet. Recent projections by FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that almost 600m people will be chronically undernourished in 2030. At the same time, the prevalence of obesity is increasing in every region of the world.

“Increasing climate extremes will cause more crops to fail, as global food demand rises. We need to use every tool we have to grow more food,” said Grossi. “Nuclear science offers incredible, innovative tools to grow stronger, healthier, safer crops and to protect the food we need to live.”

Atoms4Food builds on almost 60 years of experience that IAEA and FAO have jointly developed in supporting countries to use nuclear and isotope technology solutions to enhance food security – and nutrition and food safety. Nuclear techniques can be used in different ways to strengthen food security. They are used to speed up the natural process of plant mutation to develop crops that better withstand diseases and climatic shifts.

Nuclear and isotopic techniques can assess nutrient use and water use in soil, diagnose and characterise disease pathogens in animals, trace sources of contamination in water and study various forms of malnutrition. The nuclear sterile insect technique targets insect populations, reducing the use of insecticides for both crops and livestock. The irradiation of food can ensure that food is safe from pathogens and increases its shelf-life to aid food security.

Tailor-made research will form the core of the initiative, focusing on the specific needs of countries with concrete innovations and solutions. Through Atoms4Food, the IAEA and FAO will provide seven assessment services:

  • An Assessment Mission to map the specific needs of countries.
  • The Crop Variety Improvement Service to build country-specific crop improvement programmes using the nuclear method of plant mutation breeding to create more robust and nutritious crops.
  • The Soil & Water Management and Crop Nutrition Service to use the precision of nuclear and isotopic science to gather information on soil fertility, major crops and their average yield, availability of fertiliser and water irrigation systems.
  • The Animal Production & Health Service to provide a scientific assessment of the current epidemiological situation of animal diseases; interventions in place for prevention, diagnosis, and control; and laboratory and other veterinary service capacities.
  • The Insect Pest Control Service to address problems with insect pests that affect agricultural production by using the nuclear-based sterile insect technique.
  • The Food Safety & Control Service to make individual assessments of a country’s laboratory capabilities and ability to conduct surveillance of food hazards.
  • The Public Health Nutrition Service to inform impactful nutrition programming using evidence on the nutritional value of foods and diet quality derived from the use of stable isotope techniques.

Based on these country-specific assessments, the IAEA and FAO will harness partnerships and collaboration with other UN Agencies, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), international financial institutions, development agencies, foundations, industry, national academic, research institutions, and other relevant partners, to deliver the long-term outcomes of Atoms4Food.

Comprehensives packages will be developed under Atoms4Food for each country, including support for infrastructure and to build capacities in the use of nuclear techniques for food security. The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food & Agriculture has worked since 1964 as a strategic partnership to mobilise the resources of both organisations to provide the global community with increased production of better quality and safer food, while sustaining natural resources.

Image: Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General, IAEA (left) and Qu Dongyu, Director-General, FAO (courtesy of D Calma / IAEA)

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