Thought for food

Published On: May 9, 2018 01:00 AM NPT By: Nabin Sharma

Nabin Sharma

The contributor for Republica.

If we are to get connected with rest of the world and improve our trade and food security, we must adopt irradiation technology in food processing

Agriculture is one of the most vulnerable fields being affected by global climate change. It has affected agriculture at all levels—ranging from seed plantation to harvest and storage. A farmer comes across multiple challenges during production and storage processes. And these insects and diseases are highly sensitive to climate change.

There is a considerable crop loss during production as well as storage processing. It has been estimated that sixty percent more food will be required by 2050 if food losses and wastages remain the same as today. It will be cheaper, wiser  and cost effective to increase the shelf life of crop and food without burdening the global atmosphere with additional stock carbon rather than to produce same amount of crop or food. 

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international body for assessing the science related to climate change. Working group II of IPCC assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems including food. In its fifth assessment in 2014, IPCC revealed that most research is focused on food production, but there is a lack of scientific research and literature on non-production aspects. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations had estimated that in 2016 the number of undernourished people in the world would be approximately 815 million up from 777 million in 2015.

Damage control 

Insects and diseases have posed big challenge to farmers in production and storage process throughout the history. Insects spread crop and other animal diseases thereby damaging the crops. It has been estimated that the damage caused by insects alone amounts to more than 70 billion US dollars annually.  As an effect of climate change, these deleterious insects are moving into a new place where they couldn’t survive previously. The major means through which these insects move from one place to another are crops on which they feed, grow and reproduce.

To check this movement, authorities from different countries have implemented strict quarantine measures across international as well as national boundaries. This can be restricted by treating crops and food items with safe and acceptable technology. 

Food irradiation is one of the safest treatments which has been used for the last 50 years by other countries. In Nepal, it is almost nil. Food irradiation is a process of exposing food and food packaging to ionizing radiation from gamma rays, x-rays or electron beams, an energy that can be transmitted without direct contact to the source of the energy. The purpose is to reduce the incidence of food borne diseases, improve food security and protect trade through effective sterilization of deleterious insect-pests of economic significance and provide shelf-stable emergency rations. 

Initially food irradiation was used to treat and ensure safety of high value crops like spices, fishes, meat and emergency rations used by armed forces during the war and during the natural calamities. After its successful use, it has been applied in fresh fruits and vegetables as well. Food irradiation does not only prevent the spreading of insects and diseases, but also increases the shelf life of food contributing to minimize the post-harvest losses. 

More than 60 countries have approved one or more types of food irradiation. About 30 countries use food irradiation in practice, but for commercial use is limited—only 12 countries have commercially used it. Capital cost to establish irradiation plant, centralized facilities often far from crop production sites and slow switch from radioactive sources of radiation to electrical, machine based sources are technical reasons identified so far for slow uptake of food irradiation. 

Many new technologies took decades to become well-established. Pasteurization took 70 years, transistors and I/C took 30 years before it was used it wide scale in personal computers (PCs), and 60 years before everyday use by everyone in smart phones and internet of things. 

Widely held perception about irradiated food is that consumer will refuse to buy it. So we need to ‘educate’ the consumers. From 1960-2010, irradiation was mainly used for de-contamination of species, herbs and dehydrated vegetables. As such, consumers are generally unaware of it.

Need for Nepal 

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in association with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has developed and promoted nuclear technologies in agriculture to ensure food security and fight against hunger and malnutrition with sustainable environment protection. IAEA has supported its member countries to apply these nuclear techniques in livestock improvement, food safety and quality, plant breeding, insect pest control, land and water management and climate smart agriculture. 

As a member country of IAEA Nepal can also benefit from it. But so far, few small projects in plant breeding use irradiation technology with financial support from IAEA. In lack of institutional setup, these technologies have not received much attention from the higher authorities.

In South Asia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have 15, two, one and two radiation service delivery plants respectively. China has more than 180 radiation service providing plants. According to an estimate, around 0.03 percent of 3.9 billion tonnes of food produced each year is irradiated. 

If we are to get connected with rest of the world and improve our trade and food security, we must adopt irradiation technology in food processing. This is more necessary than ship with Nepali flag on the Pacific Ocean, our own satellite in the space and water transportation in Koshi River. 

The author is a Senior Industrial Entomologist at Department of Agriculture, Government of Nepal

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