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IAEA calls for mutated supercrops to feed world's hungry

A Triffid a day keeps starvation away

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The UN nuke agency has called for the world to make greater efforts to feed its starving millions, by increased efforts to produce enhanced, mutant super-crops developed using gamma rays.

“The global nature of the food crisis is unprecedented. Families all around the world are struggling to feed themselves,” says Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.

“To provide sustainable, long-term solutions, we must make use of all available resources. Selecting the crops that are better able to feed us is one of humankind’s oldest sciences. But we’ve neglected to give it the support and investment it requires for universal application. The IAEA is urging a revival of nuclear crop breeding technologies to help tackle world hunger.”

The IAEA nuke boffins are keen to emphasise that their "induced mutation" plans are not the same as genetically modified (GM) crops. They point out that all plant and animals species mutate naturally anyway, at a slow rate, generally without anybody noticing. Natural mutations do produce change - for instance, the appearance of monkeys able to build computers - but this normally takes millions of years. The IAEA plan is to make useful crops mutate rapidly in a laboratory, using mutagens such as gamma radiation or chemicals, and select those mutations which are useful.

“We call spontaneous mutation the motor of evolution,” says Pierre Lagoda, Head of the IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Section.

“If we could live millions of years and survey billions of acres with 100 per cent precision, we would find variants with all of the traits we’re looking for but which have mutated naturally. But we can’t wait millions of years to find the plants that are necessary now, if we want to feed the world. So with induced mutation, we are actively speeding up the process.”

The idea is that one might discover mutated crops able to resist insects or disease better, or more able to tolerate salty or dry soils.

“But we’re not producing anything that is not produced by nature itself,” says Lagoda. “For example, up until now nature has produced 140,000 distinct varieties of rice all with different characteristics [by natural mutation] ... I understand that people are suspicious of these technologies, but it's important to understand that in plant breeding we’re not producing anything that’s not produced by nature itself.

“There is no residual radiation left in a plant after mutation induction.”

Lagoda is doubtless right about the suspicion his ideas will generate among the technofear tendency. The timing of the IAEA release is especially unfortunate in the UK, where yet another revival of the Day of the Triffids has just been announced. Readers will no doubt recall that the eponymous homicidal plants of the story had originally been kept around, and possibly designed, by humanity for their virtues as a crop.

The IAEA boffins, however, prefer to dwell on various real-world successes for induced-mutation developed crops in the past. As an example they put forward VND series rice, developed by induced mutation and now the variety most widely grown in Vietnam. It thrives in the salty waters of the Mekong Delta, apparently, and laughs at the attentions of the local brown planthopper pests.

VND mutated rice, according to the IAEA, has not only let Vietnam feed itself but turned the nation into one of the world's main rice exporters in less than a generation.

Induced mutation has been in use since the 1920s, but in recent years there hasn't been enough research, the UN nuclear brains believe. They say the time has come for a big new mutant-crops push.

“The year 2008 was a wake-up call to the realization that world food production was unsustainable and vulnerable to factors such as climate change and energy demands,” says IAEA Deputy Director General Werner Burkart. “The big issues are interlinked ... there is growing competition between food, feed and fuel for soil, water and human and financial resources.”

“We are not the only solution to the world’s food crisis but we offer a tool, a very efficient tool,” adds Pierre Lagoda. ®

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