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<strong>Nuclear Technology: A Contributor to Increasing Productivity and Sustainability in Pakistan's Agriculture Sector</strong>

Being an agrarian economy, Pakistan holds 62.56% of its population in rural areas, which are associated with agriculture in one way or another. The agriculture sector of Pakistan contributes 22.7% to the GDP and employs 37.4% of the country’s labor force. Owing to this, the country has been facing a downward trend for more than a decade due to the rapid change in global climate conditions, leading to an increased frequency of extreme weather situations that impact agriculture. So, there is a dire need for Pakistan to make the agricultural system more resilient and sustainable to achieve improved quality in production and food security. Therefore, in the quest to make its agricultural system more sustainable and productive, nuclear energy can play a vital role in the development of high-yield seeds, effective pest control, climate-resilient varieties, and the preservation of food. Thus, it will improve agricultural production by extending the use of nuclear technology and will lead to an increased farm income, a decline in the price level, and an enhanced diverse food supply, which is an integral part of the development-driven growth of rural societies all around the country.

As a developing country, it struggles to meet its local demand for agricultural commodities. The rapid climate change has aggravated the intensity of abrupt temperature variations due to which wheat production has shown a drastic decline in 2022. Normally, it takes 10-12 days for the maturity of wheat grain, but the rapid imbalances in the temperature in agricultural areas have caused the time to be reduced to four days. As a result, a reduction in both the weight and size of the wheat grain is observed. As an important staple crop, wheat is vital in fulfilling public demand. Another study has pointed out that by 2040, agricultural productivity will decrease by 10%, and declared wheat as a major crop affected by climate change. Therefore, with the help of mutation breeding, a new climate-resilient variety of wheat–durum breed has been introduced, which is not only a drought-resilient variety but also has a high yield capacity. In addition, with the use of nuclear technology, experts in Pakistan have developed 100 new crop varieties, which have helped the country add $7.4 billion to the national treasury. 

Pakistan is the 5th largest producer of cotton in the world, and cotton production plays a vital role in exports. This commodity contributes 0.6% to the GDP and 2.4% to the value-added products. During the past decade, there has been a decline in both the area sown and production of cotton due to abiotic stresses, climate change, extreme weather conditions, and heat stress followed by heavy rainfall. The following graph portrays the production with respect to years. This shows a very bleak picture of the decline in the production level of cotton since 2017.


Source: Pakistan Economic Survey 2021-22

In recent years the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in collaboration with local partners, have developed new varieties of cotton through mutation breeding techniques that are more climate resilient and better adapted to the hazardous effects of climate change. As a matter of fact, these new varieties now account for 40% of all the cotton produced in Pakistan. As a result, the cotton yield has increased in 2021-22, despite the decline in the cultivated land under cotton production, it has increased from 7064 thousand bales to 8329 thousand bales of cotton which reflects that nuclear technology can play a significant role in the agriculture sector if given proper attention and investment. In the following graph, an increase has been observed in production despite a decline in cultivated land, reflecting the improved yield due to the application of nuclear technology.

 Source: Pakistan Economic Survey 2021-22

Soil salinity is one of the prominent problems affecting the irrigated agricultural system of Pakistan. Lack of proper irrigation practices and inefficient drainage have resulted in the accumulation of salt concentrations in the soil, which is hazardous to the crops. In addition, 20.8 million hectares of the country’s land is cultivatable, out of which 5.33 million hectares are severely affected due to salinity. The total loss due to the issue of salinity is estimated between Rs 15 billion to Rs 55 billion and this is in addition to the estimated loss of Rs 15 billion due to the land that has been considered unproductive due to salinity. Thus, salt-tolerant plant breeds through mutation breeding techniques will help to stabilize this highly salinized soil, which helps in mitigating the losses due to salination. Moreover, with the utilization of saline agriculture technology, uncultivated land due to salinity can be used for cultivation and increasing the productivity and sustainability of crops in saline land.

In developing economies, the indiscriminate use of pesticides has been observed, which is a significant issue with broader health effects, both on local and global environmental conditions. Recent pieces of evidence have shown that food crops comprise significant pesticide residues, which lead to several heinous diseases, pose a serious threat to human health, and result in unwanted environmental conditions. Worldwide data has shown that approximately 52% of the world’s pesticides are being consumed in Asia which is shown in figure-3. Almost 6 billion pounds of harmful chemicals are utilized in agriculture around the globe.

Figure 3: The percentage share of Pesticides


Source: Food and Agriculture Organization

In this regard, Pakistan used 14848 metric tons of pesticides in 1987, 78132 metric tons in 2003, and 206,730 metric  tons in 2017, which portrays an increase of several folds in the use of different pesticides. Using such pesticides costs us economically, environmentally, and health-wise, which reflects multifaceted costs. In the US, Guatemala, and Mexico, the governments are using a nuclear-derived sterile insect technique that suppresses and eliminates the existing pests and averts the introduction of new destructive insects. Therefore, the application of this technology to controlling pests in the agriculture sector of Pakistan will not only allow the reduction in the use of these perilous chemicals but also provides the capability to decrease the environmental and health costs associated with them.

Around 821 million humans across the globe go to bed hungry every night, and approximately 3.1 million children die annually due to malnourishment. The Global Hunger Index has ranked Pakistan 92 out of 116 nations, which portrays that the country is unable to provide sufficient food to 40% of its population. In addition, according to a report from a reliable source, 40% of the food is wasted and food loss during the supply chain is a primary contributor to this wastage. This is the result of using ordinary practices of preservation. In this regard, nuclear irradiation of food improves the safety of food and prevents the inception of microorganisms that reduces the shelf life of food. Currently, 50 food production institutions are working on the application of Nuclear Techniques for food preservation, which will not only allow them to reduce the wastage of food by preserving it, but also make it capable of meeting international standards, which is beneficial for increasing exports. Pakistan, being an agrarian economy, is faced with several issues related to agriculture and increasing food insecurity due to the increased intensity of climate change. Thus, serious shortages in the agriculture sector are observed. In this context, nuclear energy is playing a vital role to mitigate the negative effects of soil salinity, low productivity, wastage of food and yield. In recent years, with the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, it has introduced hybrid breeds of wheat and cotton that are climate resilient and have comparatively higher yields than ordinary seeds. The sustainable and ideal agriculture system is the one that preserves the environment by sustaining and improving human health and profits consumers and producers both economically and environmentally. Pakistan has been prone to climate change risk, so there is a dire need for increased investment in nuclear technology in the context of agriculture; this is beneficial for both sustainability and increased productivity, which are prerequisites for the production of a surplus of exports that can help us increase our foreign exchange reserves.