Irradiation helps Mauritius develop heat-tolerant tomato varieties

July 22, 2020, 3:03PMNuclear News

The country of Mauritius is using nuclear technology to develop new tomato varieties that can thrive in hotter temperatures. The new high-yielding and heat-tolerant tomato seeds have been distributed to the country’s farmers, helping to protect a national industry valued at US$14 million annually, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on July 15.

The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), assisted the Food and Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (FAREI) in Mauritius to develop new tomato varieties using irradiation.

Field plantation of Rising Star at FAREI's Research Station. Photo: FAREI

The crop: Tomatoes in Mauritius are cultivated over an area of 750 hectares (about 1,853 acres) with an average annual production of 11,000 metric tons (more than 24 million pounds). When temperatures rise above 30 °C (86 °F), however, tomato yields can fall by up to 80 percent, according to the IAEA. With excessive sun and high temperatures, tomato plants dry out and no longer produce new fruit. This affects the local supply, with shortfalls having to be filled by costly import of processed tomato products.

The science: The so-called mutation breeding involves exposing plant seeds or cuttings to radiation, such as gamma rays. When seeds are planted or cuttings are cultivated, plantlets are produced. The plantlets are then multiplied and observed for new traits. Once desirable traits are identified, new varieties with the favorable traits are further multiplied and distributed to farmers following registration by agricultural authorities.

In action: Seeds from a Mauritius tomato variety were irradiated at the joint FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. Plantlets were then grown and screened for characteristics such as growth rate, shape, and color and for traits such as heat tolerance and yield potential. Once suitable plants were identified, the seeds were sent back to Mauritius for field testing in locations representing the different agroclimatic environments of the country. Several experts from Mauritius received fellowship training at the FAO/IAEA labs on the technology.

In September 2019, three new high-yielding varieties–named Summer King, Summer Star, and Rising Star–were released and distributed to more than 100 farmers in Mauritius, and demand for them continues to grow, according to the IAEA.

The quote: “Rising temperatures can cause heat stress in crops, influencing yield and consequently posing a serious income threat to farmers and a food security threat for the country,” said Fatma Sarsu, plant breeder and geneticist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “Nuclear technology has been used worldwide to develop new varieties of crops that are more resilient to climate change and meet the needs of growing populations.”

Extensive work: For more than 55 years, the IAEA in cooperation with the FAO has used nuclear technology to improve agriculture and food security in countries around the world, leading to safer and more sustainable food. Mutation breeding has contributed to more than 3300 officially released mutant varieties, from 228 plant species. The FAO/IAEA Mutant Varieties Database maintains voluntarily contributed records of these varieties developed internationally, currently holding records from 73 countries.

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