The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has called for increased investment in radiation-induced mutation techniques that help in producing crop varieties with high yields and disease resistance, and can grow in stressful conditions such as drought, flood, and salinity. Using gamma radiation to produce new crop varieties through random mutations is not new. It has been in use since the 1920s and more than 3,000 varieties of 170 different plant species have been released for cultivation thanks to direct intervention by the IAEA over the past five decades. As early as 1973, a groundnut seed — India’s first mutant variety using this technique — was released by the Department of Atomic Energy. Many varieties of pulses and cereals have since been released by the DAE. Considering that existing varieties cannot meet the rising global demand for food, there is now an urgent need to use this efficient tool to produce many more crop varieties with desirable traits. Increasingly unfavourable climatic conditions are making many fertile lands unfit for agriculture. The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the sea level will rise by an average of 38.5 cm this century. This means many coastal areas and islands will be submerged by seawater, and large tracts of land will turn saline.
The priority clearly is to produce crops that can grow in saline conditions. Radiation-induced mutation has already helped produce one such rice variety. This is widely grown in the Mekong Delta’s saline soil in Vietnam, which — thanks to this and two other mutant varieties — has become one of the world’s top rice-producing countries. Kenya too has used the technology to produce a high-yielding wheat variety that is resistant to drought and is grown on more than 10,000 hectares. In India, the DAE must devote more resources to tap this technique. It should go beyond producing disease-resistant varieties and prioritise those that can grow in saline conditions and drought-prone areas. Since the process of producing a variety with desirable characteristics is time-consuming, the technique must be used selectively to produce varieties that cannot be produced through conventional breeding processes. Its advantages are that it speeds up the naturally occurring mutation process, allows farmers to save the seeds for the next harvest season, and guarantees the safety of the resultant mutant variety. India should have no hesitation in going for radiation-induced mutation in a big way.