New home-grown barley varieties developed using irradiation with the support of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are in the final stages of development and will be ready to be released to farmers for production in coming years.
“Modern plant breeding technologies ensuring sustainability and conservation of scarce natural resources are of paramount importance in achieving national food security and the enhancement of biodiversity,” said Habibah S. Al-Menaie, a senior research scientist in the Desert Agriculture and Ecosystems Program of the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR). “Joining the FAO/IAEA coordinated research projects in the area of mutation breeding has led to the development of several barley mutant lines with improved yield and quality under Kuwait’s environmental conditions.”
As arable land is limited to small areas, 95% of the country’s food and animal fodder is imported. Barley is a preferred crop for cultivation, because it is relatively drought tolerant and therefore one of the most suitable crops for an arid country like Kuwait. Having high yielding home grown crops is among the key objectives of the country’s agricultural programme to enhance food security.
“Increased agricultural production in Kuwait is a major challenge due to several constraints such as drought, salinity, limited water sources, limited plant genetic resources, low percentage of arable land and unpredictable climatic events,” said Al-Menaie.
The development of new varieties with improved traits is just the first step towards increasing yields. Optimizing water and nutrient use efficiency helps ensure that the new improved varieties live up to their yield potential and provide agronomic, environmental and economic benefits. “Efficient crop production requires the establishment of appropriate soil, water and crop management practices in the field. In this regard, soil moisture levels are monitored to develop effective strategies for resource efficient crop production. It increases the efficiency of the agricultural production and conserves natural resources,” Al-Menaie said.
This is a major step forward for the country’s small agriculture industry, said Nader Al-Awadi, the Executive Commissioner for International Cooperation at KISR. Drought, salinity and diseases have historically limited staple crop productivity in Kuwait. The lack of crop varieties optimized to local environmental conditions and improper soil, water and nutrient management practices have hindered sustainable and efficient agricultural production so far, he added.
Mutated barley — the next generation
Mutation induction by radiation rapidly increases the genetic diversity necessary to produce new and improved varieties and is thus advantageous over traditional breeding. “There was no crop mutation work until cooperation commenced with the FAO/IAEA Programme and equipment was received for plant propagation and screening purposes,” Al-Menaie said. With the view to develop the new barley varieties, the growth and yield performance of introduced barley varieties and lines from other countries were evaluated under Kuwait’s environmental conditions. The best adaptable varieties were identified, and the seeds were subjected to induced mutation using gamma rays.
New mutant lines have been generated and they are now examined for drought and salinity tolerance. The selected mutant lines will be advanced, which then can be multiplied for planting. “It’s a long process, but we are about to see the life-changing results, which will have a great impact in the agricultural sector of Kuwait very soon,” Al-Menaie said.
Changed attitude: Increasing farmer awareness
One of the major challenges was explaining to farmers the safety of the new mutated barley lines developed. “When they heard that ‘nuclear techniques’ were used to create improved barely seeds, they got scared,” Al-Menaie said, adding that the authorities encouraged land owners and farmers to participate in crop mutation technology workshops. These provided in-depth information and resulted – over time – in a changed attitude amongst farmers, she said.
Eisa Al-Hasawy, the Chairperson of the Kuwait Dairy Company, pioneered farmers’ support to KISR efforts to promote the benefits of the new mutated barley. “We are happy that on our sandy soil, with little or no water, the new barley variety will be produced to benefit our people and hopefully lead to us exporting barley in the future,” he said. “Working at the grass root level with local farmers was vital to overcoming their fears and traditional mindset.”
Training and enhancing expertise
The FAO/IAEA support has been key to the success in developing the new barley variety. Through technical cooperation and coordinated research projects, the training in integrated crop mutation techniques as well equipment provided to the KISR plant and soil laboratories have helped scientists to gain a better understanding of how nuclear techniques such a gamma ray induction for crop mutation can help to have better crops, Al-Menaie said.
For barley to grow and produce seeds, soil moisture is critical, for which the FAO/IAEA Programme’s support to KISR’s soil and water section, through training and equipment, has been an added value, she said.
To assess the moisture levels in soil, and to ensure every drop of water is used, the FAO/IAEA experts provided training on soil water management and soil moisture equipment, including the use of the cosmic ray neutron sensor to assess water availability to the crop. The cosmic ray sensor monitors soil moisture over up to 20 hectares, a much bigger footprint compared to conventional moisture sensors, said Abdullah Salem Alshatti, the principal researcher at the KISR Soil Department.
The moisture in the soil is tracked in real time and the data acquired helps develop effective strategies to optimise supplemental irrigation to have soil moist to a level that benefits crop production, he said. “Data collected from the cosmic ray sensor also helps to develop precise action to conserve moisture in the soil by using dry weeds and tree barks on the top soil to preserve wetness”.