Farmers in Indonesia have over the last few years grown enough rice for more than 20 million people using plants developed through the country’s plant mutation breeding program. The program first took root through collaboration with the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1997 and has since grown into a comprehensive partnership network that brings the results of scientific research with nuclear techniques to farmers’ fields.
“Nuclear technology in Indonesia has been used in various fields of life, including agriculture,” says Suryantoro, the deputy chairman of Indonesia’s National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN). “Through radiation mutation engineering research, BATAN has improved the quality of local crop varieties with the aim that the new improved seeds be widely used by the community.”
When the first plant breeding cooperation project with the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture began in 1997, scientists at BATAN’s research institutes received state-of-the-art equipment, extensive training in nuclear technologies, and support from experts through IAEA coordinated research and technical cooperation projects. This laid the foundation for Indonesia’s plant mutation breeding programme.
More than 35 new varieties of crops, such as soybeans and rice, have since been developed through the program. The new varieties are bred using irradiation and selected based on their improved characteristics compared to other local varieties, such as higher yields, shorter cultivation time or resistance to climate change stressors and diseases. Once ready, seeds for these new crops are then multiplied and made available to farmers.
“It’s important that more seeds are produced to increase the area under cultivation,” says A. Sidik Tanoyo, an official from the Ministry of Agriculture in East Java. “This will contribute to increased productivity and farmers’ incomes.”
To help ensure widespread use of these new crop varieties, the program has grown into a comprehensive partnership network that is clearing the way for large-scale cultivation. The model is built on collaboration between research institutes, ministries, governmental agencies, seed breeding companies, farmers’ cooperatives, market and export groups. These partnerships span the supply chain from seed development and multiplication to distribution and cultivation in the fields.
“The program, involving many national Ministries and Institutions and three international organizations, is designed to run from upstream to downstream,” says Totti Tjiptosumirat, Head of BATAN’s Centre for Isotope and Radiation Application. “BATAN in the upstream position develops superior seeds; the Ministry of Agriculture distributes seeds to seed producers, and the Ministry of Industry transfers the innovation downstream to small and medium-sized enterprises or start-up companies.’’
Growing more rice around the country
Three of BATAN’s 23 new rice varieties, for example, are now being widely cultivated in different regions around the country. Known as Bestari, Inpari Sidenuk, and Mustaban, these rice plants were selected because they can produce, on average, more than 150% more rice in a shorter time than other local varieties. They are also more resistant to changes in the climate as well as diseases and insects.
‘’In my area, the planthopper insect is everywhere, and when I saw these good Mustaban plants, I thanked God the planthopper does not affect it,” says Hamid, a seed breeder from the Pontang area in Serang in Banten province. Nearby in Kaseman village, another seed grower, Tatang, also adds: “We did not have to use insecticides. Once the flowers from our Mustaban plants came out, there were no rice stink bugs to be found, but the plant needs to be shorter.”
Experts at BATAN plan to continue research and development to expand the number of new plant varieties and to incorporate farmers’ feedback to further refine and improve how the plants perform. The research will also be geared toward optimizing how plants grow using local agricultural practices, such as fertilizer systems, and under different environmental conditions, such as local soils, strong winds and heavy rains.
“Sustaining agricultural production has never been more challenging than today as water scarcity, soil erosion, land degradation and crop failures keep amplifying,” says Qu Liang, Director of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division during a visit to Indonesia in March 2019. “Climate-smart agriculture through effective plant mutation breeding programmes like Indonesia’s is an important part of building a sustainable future.”
Plant mutation breeding
Plant mutation breeding is the process of exposing plant seeds, cuttings or tissue-culture material to radiation, such as gamma rays, and then planting the seed or cultivating the irradiated material in a sterile rooting medium, which generates a plantlet. The individual plants are then multiplied and examined for new and useful traits. Once the genetic changes giving rise to new traits have been identified, molecular marker-assisted breeding can be used to accelerate breeding of new varieties with desired traits.
Plant mutation breeding does not involve gene modification, but rather uses a plant’s own genetic resources and mimics the natural process of spontaneous mutation: the motor of evolution. By using radiation, scientists can significantly enhance the genetic diversity necessary to develop novel and improved varieties.