“Food irradiation prevents post-harvest losses” : Dr Suresh Bhagwat

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), the leading atomic research centre of the country, has a long history of finding peaceful applications of nuclear energy into a wide spectrum of fields. Nuclear agriculture and food technology division of BARC has developed 41 crop varieties many of which are a regular part of our diet. The centre is also the first outside the USA to develop food irradiation facility that has been a milestone for Indian food exporters. In an interview to NuFFooDS Spectrum Dr Suresh Bhagwat, former head, Nuclear Agriculture Division, BARC explains how nuclear technology has found its application towards achieving food as well as nutrition security. Excerpts:

What is nuclear agriculture?

Nuclear agriculture in simple words is use of radioactive isotopes and radiations to induce mutations to produce new or improved species of crops. This technique is being used for many years and is totally different from genetically modified (GM) crops. Process of mutation, unlike GM crops, does not seek to introduce new or different genetic material in crops. It simply enhances their desirable qualities and reduces unwanted characteristics.

Mutation is a natural process in plants and animals which takes place at a very slow pace on its own spanning across generations. Nuclear agriculture only speeds up this process to achieve desirable results.

How crop varieties developed with mutation breeding are better?

Crop varieties developed this way have better features as compared to their parent species – they give higher yield, are resistant to common diseases, require less fertilisers, can survive drought or heavy rainfall and have better nutritional profile. Mutation can also be used to innovate varieties which are better for baking or melting and cook in lesser time.

We, at BARC have developed 41 different varieties of crops using mutations. Of these, almost half are oilseeds – 15 varieties of groundnut, three varieties of mustard and one variety of sunflower. Few of these groundnut varieties contain high oleic acid which makes them healthier for consumption as compared to normal groundnut.

How is the response to the crop varieties?

We have received very good response from farmers for these crops. In fact, demand for these seeds is huge. At present, we have collaborations with Seed Corporation of India and agriculture universities across the country for producing seeds. In addition to it, there are number of authorised agents for selling seeds. However, considering the demand, supplying at that scale is still a challenge. We need more collaboration from private players to meet this demand.

As increasing harvest and improving nutrition profile of crops is important for food security, so is preserving it in post-harvest stage. How can nuclear technology be applied at this stage?

Food irradiation is an effective application that helps prevent post-harvest losses. In this process, food, either pre-packed or in bulk, is exposed to a controlled amount of radiations such as gamma rays, X-rays or electrons.

The Food and Drug Administration of USA (USFDA) has approved irradiation of fresh fruits & vegetables, spices, including meat & poultry and a variety of other food. The process is safe and effective in decreasing or eliminating harmful bacteria. Irradiation also reduces spoilage bacteria, insects and parasites, and in certain fruits and vegetables it inhibits sprouting and delays ripening.

How can food irradiation help food industry?

Food irradiation has also found its applications in food industry, both in domestic and exports. In domestic food industry, irradiation can be used to improve shelf life of food to a year or even more, in case of some food items. We often face shortage of onions, vegetables as well as cereals and pulses which then lead to food inflation. Such food produce, when available in excess, can be irradiated and stored for use in times of shortage. In that way, food irradiation technique may help check price volatility of vegetables and foodgrains in the country.

In exports, it is an effective technique for sterilising the food product. Most spices get heavily contaminated with microbes and pathogenic bacteria during sun drying. This may lead to food borne diseases. Irradiation can help eliminate such contamination from the spices. And it does not affect food’s attributes such as nutritional adequacy, flavour, aroma and safety.

What are the challenges in taking this technology ahead?

India has one of the world’s largest domestic food markets. Huge quantities of cereals, pulses, their products, fruits and vegetables, sea food and spices are procured, stored and distributed across the country. During storage a large quantity of this food is wasted due to infestation and spoilage. Radiation processing can be used for disinfestation and storage for supply chain management in retail distribution. However, even if a fraction of our total production is to be processed by radiation, it will require several new facilities to come up in future. Setting up adequate number of facilities to meet this demand is one of the biggest challenges ahead.

Have you received any response from private players to setup irradiation facilities?

Yes, interest of entrepreneurs in this technology is increasing. Given the sensitive nature of the technology and need of specialised training to handle the facility, they need to follow certain guidelines. The Board of Radiation and Isotopes Technology (BRIT) helps entrepreneurs and industry in setting up gamma radiation facilities under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and licence by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

What other applications of nuclear technology you see pertaining to nutrition security?

Nuclear technology has various applications pertaining to nutrition security. Stable isotope technology is used to estimate the amount of absorbable nutrients in the body.
It is safe, non-invasive and can be used for all ages. It is perhaps the only reliable tool available to determine absorption, retention or utilisation of a nutrient in the body.

Nikita Apraj
(With inputs from Dr K B Sainis, Director, Bio-medical group, BARC and Dr S Gautam, Head, Food Science & Safety Division, BARC)

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