Achieving more productive and resilient agriculture requires radical changes in the management practices of water, soil, nutrients and other agricultural resources to promote agricultural production and adaptability. Using isotope techniques, carbon, water and nutrients can be quantified and their pathways and dynamics in different agro-ecosystems can be studied to improve smart farming practices.
Farmers need help to develop practices that can adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change while being able to increase food production. Better management of natural resources, such as land, water, soil and genetic resources, is needed to increase production and the adaptability of agriculture. This should include practices such as conservation agriculture, which can have many benefits, including reduced soil erosion, as well as increased soil water retention and nutrient availability for crops, accumulation of soil organic matter, and crop and livestock productivity.
In collaboration with FAO, IAEA is working to improve and strengthen the capacity of member countries in the use of nuclear and isotope techniques to adopt more climate-smart agricultural practices while supporting further intensification of crop production and enhanced conservation of natural resources.
Climate-smart farming practices can contribute to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production. These practices often have benefits for both the agricultural economy and the environment. For example, improving the quality and nutritional balance of livestock feed not only reduces intestinal and greenhouse gas emissions from manure, but also helps to increase productivity and thus income. Improved animal husbandry and health practices help to reduce the number of breeding animals that consume resources but do not yet produce and the associated emissions.
Small mixed farms producing both meat and milk emit less greenhouse gases than specialised farms producing meat and milk separately. Genetic characterisation, marker-assisted selection and feed improvement can help to increase meat production from dairy animals and improve its quality.
Contribution of nuclear and isotopic techniques
Nitrogen 15 and carbon 13 are used to monitor the pathways and dynamics of carbon, water and nutrients in agro-ecosystems to assess the effects of conservation agriculture measures, to verify the stabilization and renewal of soil organic matter, and to determine the fate of nitrogen and carbon in crop residues. They are used to study land degradation and soil erosion so that appropriate soil and water conservation and management practices can be effectively targeted.
The incorporation of nitrogen 14, phosphorus 32, phosphorus 33 or sulphur 35 in rumen microorganisms (the first compartment of the stomach of ruminants, such as cattle) is used to study the intake and utilization of rumen microbial proteins and to determine the best forage crops. This can help to improve feed conversion rates and energy use, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The use of iodine-125 labelled progesterone in radio immunoassay (a method used to measure very small amounts of a hormone in the blood) can help identify pregnant females and optimize animal breeding programs.
Mapping by irradiation hybrids using cobalt-60 helps characterize animal genomes, which facilitates the determination of genetic traits of interest, such as disease resistance or the ability to live under climatic or nutritional stress.
Radionuclides from fallout, such as cesium-137, lead-210 and beryllium-7, are used to determine the redistribution of soil over different time periods, ranging from a few days (7Be) to about 100 years (210Pb) to a decade (137Cs). This technique is useful for detecting trends in soil erosion and sedimentation rate.