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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has called for increased investment in a nuclear technology that could tackle the global food crisis.

Induced mutation, where the mutation rate in crop seeds is increased by exposure to radiation or certain chemicals, creates a large number of genetically different plants that can then be screened for desirable traits such as disease resistance or high starch content.

The IAEA is urging that the process — invented in the 1920s and used around the world — be given increased attention in light of the global food crisis and threats to food production, such as climate change.

The IAEA is looking for several million dollars to enhance its links with developing country plant breeders and support them in using the technology and building their capacity. 

Induced mutation has largely remained under the radar of public consciousness, says Pierre Lagoda, head of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization)/IAEA Joint Division's Plant Breeding and Genetics Section.

The technique can cut years off the process of finding and breeding plants, he told SciDev.Net. Conventional breeding involves crossbreeding plants that have spontaneous — rather than induced — mutations for desirable traits, which can take up to ten years.

"We can take two to three years off that with induced mutation. This might be the only way to increase the variety of plants we need in a reasonable amount of time," Lagoda says.

More than 3,000 varieties of 170 different plant species have been produced and released globally using induced mutation. These include a rice variety that thrives in saline soil, which has increased the income of Vietnamese farmers by an additional US$300 million a year; barley that can grow at 5,000 metres above sea level; and a high-yielding, disease resistant wheat in Kenya.

The Joint Division works with plant breeders, food agencies and agricultural groups to support the use of induced mutation throughout the developing world. Those that lack the capability to irradiate seeds themselves can send them to the FAO/IAEA plant-breeding unit. 

Lagoda describes the technology involved as "grassroots technology", within the means and capabilities of all developing countries. "We want to support food producers by pointing out the different techniques available," he says, adding that induced mutation is low-cost and has been well-proven in its efficacy.