Nuclear energy as game changer for Nigerian farmers

Experts have stressed the role of nuclear energy in the quest to feed the world. In this report, they examine how Nigeria can leverage this option to drive its food security and safety agenda, writes STANLEY OPARA

Junaid Amodu is a water melon farmer resident in the Jukwoyi suburban district of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. After the 2017 farming season that saw him harvest over a lorry-load of produce, Now, Amodu can barely feed his family, not to talk of paying the school fees of his four children, which are already due. The Jukwoyi indigene lost over 75 per cent of his harvest to spoilage. Issues bordering on logistics and finance delayed an arrangement to move the produce to Lagos, where it would be sold to fruit vendors.

For Amodu, the challenge of preserving farm harvests to prevent spoilage has continued to stare him and other Jukwoyi farmers in the face.

“I lost money, time and energy put into my farming work last year. I wish I had what it takes to preserve my water melons. If I had succeeded in selling all that I harvested, now I should be helping other farmers that need financial aid,” he lamented.

The International Atomic Energy Agency says nuclear technologies provide competitive and often unique solutions to help fight hunger and malnutrition, improve environmental sustainability and ensure that food is safe. The IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations work in partnership to help member states use these technologies safely and appropriately.

The agency says, “We continually support more than 200 national and regional technical cooperation projects with an annual expenditure of some $14m. These projects help deliver to member states technologies and capacities developed in more than 30 perpetually evolving Coordinated Research Projects. Over 400 research institutions and experimental stations in member states cooperate in these CRPs.

“Our joint FAO/IAEA laboratories perform a broad range of applied and adaptive research and development activities. They also provide protocols, guidance, training and specialised services in a variety of areas and are a repository of reference and special biological materials.”

Owing to the fact that Nigeria is a member of FAO and IAEA, there is therefore hope for farmers, especially those having one challenge or the other like Amodu. This is likely to be driven by the current situation in the Nigerian agric sector where 30 per cent to 40 per cent of some of the food produced are eventually wasted, according to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbe.

Ogbeh admited that Nigeria produces more food than its people can consume, saying a huge chunk of the food gets wasted due to poor preservation capacity of the country.

Farmers and other stakeholders bare their minds

On account of the increasing post-harvest losses by farmers, the Technical Adviser, All Farmers Association of Nigeria, Dr. Tunde Arosanyin, appealed to the Federal Government to introduce measures that would end post-harvest losses in cash and food crops.

He said that the prevalence of post-harvest losses was a threat to the quest for food sufficiency and the diversification efforts of government.

Arosanyin said, “We are talking about 30 per cent to 35 per cent loss of farm produce that we laboured for.

“A visit to Kano State, North-West Nigeria, for instance, will make you weep for our farmers. You will see a lot of tomatoes wasting away after four days of harvest. The same thing happens in southern Nigeria where you will see heaps of bananas rotting away.”

According to him, farm produce meant to be exported to Europe and other countries are not spared as perishable food items are seen littering the ports because of the delay in getting them out of the country, which consequently causes serious losses to their owners.

“Our preservation policies have to be reviewed urgently to save us the stress of counting our losses instead of gains. We are appealing to government to allocate more money to the agricultural sector,” he said.

In the same vein, Mrs. Shalewa Olaoluwa, a food vendor at the Ajuwon fruit market in Ogun State, South-West Nigeria, said that there is no week in the year she does not record losses from food items such as potatoes, vegetables, garden eggs, and oranges, among others.

According to her, aside of the losses she incurs from spoilage, she is often times forced to sell food items at give-away prices when they are beginning to stay long in the shelf.

“Almost everybody in this market, especially those selling fruits, face this problem. We are helpless because we do not know what to do to address the challenge,” she lamented.

The National President, Nigeria Institute of Food Science and Technology, Dr. Chijioke Osuji, said that attracting investments into various commodity value chains was key to actualising the objectives of the Agriculture Promotion Policy (2016-2020).

The Federal Government recently released an agricultural policy document titled: The Agriculture Promotion Policy for 2016 to 2020, which is also known as the Green Alternative.

Under the policy, government plans to consolidate gains of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda and further promote the value chains of agriculture in the country.

Osuji said, “It is already known that investments that promote post-harvest business opportunities also drive agriculture value chains forward by creating take-off opportunities for producers. It will also ensure that farmers get good returns from their operations.”

With the current challenge, he said, there was a need for substantial investments to be directed toward food processing, business development and food product marketing.

Russia/Nigeria nuclear agreements raise hopes

In October 2017, Russia and Nigeria signed agreements on construction and operation of a Nuclear Power Plant and a research centre housing a multi-purpose nuclear research reactor in Nigeria. The parties also signed a roadmap for cooperation in the field of peaceful usage of nuclear technologies.

“The development of nuclear technologies will allow Nigeria to strengthen its position as one of the leading countries of the African continent. These are the projects of a large scale and strategic importance,” Anton Moskvin, Vice President for Marketing and Business Development of Rusatom Overseas (a part of the State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom), said.

The feasibility studies for the Nuclear Power Plant project and the research centre construction will include site screening as well as the determination of key parameters of implementation, including capacity, equipment lists, timeframes and stages of implementation, as well as financing schemes.

The two countries started their partnership in 2009 by executing an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the field of peaceful usage of nuclear technologies. Further on, intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in design, construction, operation and decommissioning of the Nuclear Power Plant and the Nuclear Research Centre housing a multi-purpose nuclear research reactor were signed.

The Russian Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Nikolay Udovichenko, said the application of nuclear to agriculture would drive Nigeria’s diversification agenda from oil as the main revenue earner and strengthen its position as one of the leading economies of the African continent.

“We understand that the project is of a large scale and of strategic importance. It would bring about thousands of new jobs; it has accumulated effect with synergy with other space development. This will lead to development of infrastructure, to new levels of education, new skills and generation of specialists; so, it is very important,” Udovichenko said.

The world is thinking nuclear

In a bid to achieve improved farming practices, healthier animals and ultimately, increased food security, a $600,000 grant by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries Fund for International Development, under a partnership with the IAEA, was signed in December 2017.

The work will promote the use of nuclear techniques towards best agricultural practices and will benefit many people including poor farmers in developing countries in Asia.

According to the IAEA, $400,000 will be used to help farmers grow rice that can cope with the effects of climate change in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Nepal.

Countries in Asia which produce 90 per cent of the world’s rice have seen fluctuating yields in recent years due to rising temperatures that bring plant diseases and insect pests, extreme floods and droughts as well as a rise in sea levels leading to increased soil salinity and lower soil fertility in coastal areas.

By using nuclear and isotopic techniques, scientists can help farmers improve water management practices and optimise the use of fertilizer for best yields at the lowest cost.

The other $200,000 will go into the application of nuclear-related techniques for the diagnosis of foot-and-mouth disease and other diseases impacting cattle in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Many animal diseases are highly contagious and can spread extremely quickly within a country and across borders, hindering trade and, in some cases, affecting public health. Early and rapid detection of the pathogen is key to halting the spread of these diseases.

Nuclear-related techniques are used in the development of testing kits for the diagnosis of such diseases. While conventional methods can detect the viruses, they take a long time and cannot determine their behaviour or genetic character which is required for a rapid response.

Nuclear to the rescue of food-borne diseases

Food irradiation is life-saving technology as it eradicates bacteria and parasites that can cause food-borne diseases. According to the World Health Organisation, each year around 600 million people suffer an array of illnesses caused by consuming contaminated food. As estimated by WHO, Africa has the highest level of food-borne diseases – more than 90 million people fall ill and roughly 130,000 die as a result each year.

Nuclear upholds United Nation’s SDGs

The nuclear for agric agenda supports national, regional and international activities related to food security as it includes food quality and safety, food production, and food supply and availability, according to internationally agreed standards such as those of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

This is in line with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and specifically Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 3 and 17, which are: no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, and partnership to achieve the goal, respectively.

Successes as reported by FAO

The FAO says via the use of isotopes and radiation technique, the following successes have been recorded:

Cameroon uses nuclear technology effectively in its livestock reproduction, breeding, artificial insemination and disease control programmes. By crossing the Bos indicus and the Bos taurus (two local cattle breeds), farmers have tripled their milk yields from 500 to 1 500 litres and generated an additional $110m in farmer income per year.

Another programme has dramatically curbed the incidence of Brucellosis, a highly contagious zoonosis, or disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans who drink unpasteurised milk or eat undercooked meat from infected animals.

In Benin, a scheme involving 5 000 rural farmers increased the maize yield by 50 per cent and lowered the amount of fertilizer used by 70 per cent with techniques that facilitate nitrogen fixation.

Similarly, nuclear techniques allow Maasai farmers in Kenya to schedule small-scale irrigation, doubling vegetable yields while applying only 55 per cent of the water that would normally be applied using traditional hand watering.

The governments of Guatemala, Mexico and the United States of America have been using the nuclear-derived sterile insect technique for decades to prevent the northward spread of the Mediterranean fruit fly (medfly) into Mexico and the United States.

In addition, Guatemala sends hundreds of millions of sterile male medflies every week to the US states of California and Florida to protect valuable crops such as citrus fruits. With the sterile male medflies unable to reproduce, it is really the perfect insect birth control.

Scientific programmes in Pakistan, Angola and Mozambique now enable the testing for veterinary drug residues and contaminants in animal products. Already, some 50 Pakistani food production and export institutions benefit from the new laboratory testing capabilities, which help ensure they meet international food standards and boost the country’s reputation in the international food trade.

The nuclear-derived cross-breeding programme in Burkina Faso has helped farmers to breed more productive and climate-resistant animals. The programme is underpinned by genetic evaluations in four national laboratories with scientists also able to use associated technology to produce a lick feed that provides the bigger more productive livestock with the nutrients they need.

In recent years, farmers in northern Bangladesh have been using a fast-maturing mutant rice variety called Binadhan-7. This variety ripens 30 days quicker than normal rice, giving farmers time to harvest other crops and vegetables within the same season.

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