Columnists

Nuclear technology to turn Zambia into food basket

AGRICULTURE has received high priority from the government of Zambia as it seeks to diversify the country's economy.

Analysis: CALVIN KALEYI
AGRICULTURE in Zambia employs about half the labour force while it remains the sector offering the largest opportunity for rural women to find employment, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Despite contributing 6.5 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP) and accounting for 9.6 percent of national export earnings in 2016, the industry is one of the most under-developed in the country, despite boasting tremendous growth potential.
Advancements in science and technology, particularly in the nuclear sphere, could prove key in exploiting this potential and achieving sustainable growth to the point where the industry can rival mining in terms of exports and GDP contribution.
The ministry, through the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI), is currently running multiple research projects in various fields with a collective objective of providing a high quality, appropriate and cost-effective service to farmers in generating and adapting crop, soil and plant protection technologies. Though a lot of progress has been made, there remains much more to be done in terms of advancing agriculture using science and technology.
Zambia recently got on the nuclear technology train when it signed an agreement with Russia’s ROSTOM to develop a Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology (CNST) in Lusaka.
The project is expected to help Zambia sort its crippling energy woes that recently brought many industries to a standstill with power rationing lasting 8-14 hours daily when water levels in the country’s hydro-electric dams hit all-time lows.
Aside from its large energy potential, nuclear science has a place in agriculture and environmental protection. Over the years, techniques derived from atomic science have been used in soil conservation and agricultural development in many countries across the globe. For example, nuclear technology can be used to detect excessive pesticide and/or other potentially harmful chemical residues in food, as well as combat agro-pests and environmental degradation.
EFFECTIVE PEST CONTROL
Pests pose a serious threat to agricultural production. The diseases they spread to crops can reduce the potential yield by as much as 40 percent or wipe out the whole crop in severe cases leading to millions of dollars in losses. Spraying pesticides can have adverse effects on the environment and often leaves toxic residue on the plants and animals that come into contact with them. Additionally, greater quantities of pesticide are required to achieve the same result as the insects develop a resistance to certain insecticides, making the exercise costlier over time.
Australia’s US$600 million a year fruit trade often suffered massive losses due to fruit fly infestations. However, the country has been able to keep the invasive insects under control by use of sterile insect technique (SIT). SIT uses nuclear radiation to sterilise millions of laboratory reared fruit flies, which are then released in the affected region to mate with the wild flies. Because the irradiated flies cannot produce offspring to replenish the numbers. The overall population starts to decline as members die off. The irradiated insects are harmless to humans and animals from a radioactive perspective in that the treatment only affects their ability to reproduce and does not make them radioactive.
In some parts of Zambia, we see a significant prevalence of tsetse flies which greatly hinders livestock production. The flies spread an illness known as human animal trypanosomiasis (HAT), which, apart from reducing productivity, can be fatal to both animals and people.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that HAT (sleeping sickness) kills over three million animals in sub-Saharan Africa annually, causing over US$4 billion in losses.
With the introduction of nuclear research in Zambia, SIT could be a viable lasting solution to the nation’s tsetse fly problem, thereby allowing the livestock sector to flourish.
TOUGHER CROPS
Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture, through ZARI, continues to work tirelessly to develop crop varieties that are stable, high yielding, have good storability with acceptable quality and high nutrition amid increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and growing demand for local farm produce both within and across the borders.
The focus areas of the ongoing research have been to develop varieties that are not only pest and disease-resistant but can also withstand adverse conditions such as drought or high soil acidity.
In Ghana, nuclear radiation was used to change the genetics of the cocoa plant to create a variety that is more resistant to disease. On this evidence, atomic science would certainly serve to supplement ZARI’s efforts and speed up the realisation of the institution’s overall goal of developing and adapting appropriate crop varieties and agronomic technologies for all categories of farmers across the country.
Further, radiation can also be used in post-harvest to destroy micro-organisms and prolong the produce’s shelf life while also meeting international hygiene standards and unlocking export opportunities.
The advantage we get from using nuclear radiation in treating harvested products is that there are negligible changes caused to the products in terms of appearance, taste and nutritional value compared to regular preservation methods. The irradiated food does not become radioactive and is safe to eat immediately after the treatment, much in the same way food prepared in a domestic microwave oven is harmless despite being literally cooked by radiation.
PERFECTING SOIL CONSERVATION
Over 75 billion tonnes of soil get eroded from global agricultural systems each year. Typically, soil erosion affects mainly the top soil, which is generally where most crops get their nutrients and water. Advancements in atomic technology have enabled scientists to develop ways to track and effectively mitigate the rate and scale of soil erosion in any given region.
In Morocco, for instance, nearly half of the total land area suffers from some form of erosion due to different factors, among them deforestation resulting in over 100 million tonnes in annual soil losses.
Zambia, on average, loses about 300,000 hectares of forests per year. Erratic rainfall patterns experienced in recent years characterised by long dry spells followed by heavy downpours have combined with the shrinking vegetation to create new erosion-prone areas in the country. The increased erosion could lead to high siltation of hydro-electric reservoirs – making them hold less water, thus negatively affecting electricity production in the medium to long term.
Morocco’s scientists at the National Centre for Nuclear Energy, Science and Techniques (CNESTEN), the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA) and the National Centre for Forestry Research (CNRF) with help from International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], and FAO developed a way to identify erosion-prone regions and test the efficacy of counter erosion measures employed in affected areas.
The strategies have reduced soil losses by as much as 40 percent to 60 percent in some areas while also lowering the amount of sediment ending up in water reservoirs.
By accurately identifying erosion hot spots, as well as the average magnitude of the losses, Zambia could develop customised soil conservation methods to protect our farmers from erosion.
Nuclear isotopes can also be used to measure the soil’s water and nutrient storage capacity as well as fertiliser and pesticide waste – information farmers can use to ensure they use inputs efficiently. This method proved highly successful in Benin when 14,000 maize and soybean farmers reported an increase in seasonal yields after it was introduced.
With the coming of a Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology, Zambia is well poised to join over 70 countries that have partnered with FAO and IAEA in using nuclear science to advance their food safety and grow their agriculture sector, thereby potentially generating billions of dollars in income and creating thousands of jobs.
Zambia’s long anticipated nuclear project could be a major turning point in the country’s economic landscape. Once at full operation, it could help Zambia develop the tools it needs to turn itself into a regional food basket through increased production. Local farmers could finally take full control of their production as opposed to being at nature’s mercy.
The author is a media and public relations manager at Zambia National Farmers Union.

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