For every hectare of field in Malaysia, more than 2,000 kilograms of fertiliser are consumed every year. In 2016, the production of staple food, mainly rice, increased by 28.2 per cent or 768.9 thousand tonnes compared to 2015. It is the livelihood of more than 300,000 rice farmers in the country.
While fertiliser is understandably important to increase crop yields, its overuse has long been an environmental problem. It causes water pollution, emits greenhouse gases during its manufacture and when applied to the soil, and acidifying soil and water. The trend for fertiliser consumption has been increasing for the past two decades and is not expected to diminish.
Scientists have showed that a balance between global food security and environmental consequences is possible – by up to 30 per cent reduction of fertiliser consumption. This is where precision agriculture comes into play. Precision agriculture is about managing and responding to various factors at the agriculture site such as weather patterns, soil condition, temperature and humidity, by using fewer resources, reducing production costs yet growing more crops.
Since the 1960s nuclear technology has been known to be a powerful tool in agricultural practices. It is becoming more popular now due to the increasing effects of climate change and environmental problems faced by both the farmers and consumers.
How is nuclear technology applied in precision agriculture? Since soil is a key factor in agriculture, any information on the soil – its chemical and physical properties – would also be key to success in precision agriculture. In fact a combination of complementary technologies is required.
Last year, the Malaysian Nuclear Agency (Nuclear Malaysia) collaborated with Ministry of Agriculture in a soil mapping programme. Nearly 1000 hectare of rice production areas were mapped for their fertility level using a nuclear technique called the ground electromagnetic measurement. Recommendation regarding precise input of fertiliser was then provided to the farmers, thus increasing productivity using minimal fertiliser.
Another nuclear method is by using isotopic techniques to track how much fertiliser the plant absorbs. As an active member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Nuclear Malaysia has conducted stable isotope research to enhance agricultural productivity and food safety in Malaysia.
In the case of detecting the absorption of fertilisers, a different form of nitrogen, produced through this technique, is incorporated into the fertiliser and hence is traceable by special devices. Farmers are now more informed. They would only add fertilisers to the soil when necessary. In a pilot project, farmers reported to have reduced fertiliser by a further 20 per cent.
Isotopic methods also help the planters determine the amount of nutrients and toxic in the soil. This is very useful information because they would then know how to improve soil fertility, how much neutralisation is required, along with the best time to do so. It is indeed all about “precision”.
In a pilot project, Nuclear Malaysia has offered an integrated approach called the “nuclear package” to help 25 farmers overcome low soil fertility and unpredictable weather patterns such as heavy rainfall and brief periods of drought.
Farmers from northern peninsular have seen their yields increased by 40 per cent, an increase also reflected in their incomes, in the last two crop seasons. A new rice variety, biofertiliser and plant growth promoters are part of the nuclear package. This rice variety called NMR152 is a survival. It can withstand periods of droughts and inundation for eight days.
Besides producing seedlings from mutation breeding, nuclear irradiation can also produce oligochitosan, an organic plant growth promoter that can be derived from household and agricultural wastes such as lobster, shrimps and crabs. Participants of this pilot project have reported a 30 per cent decrease in the application of pesticides and fertilisers.
Agriculture is perceived as a traditional sector, using traditional tools. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this new economy, the task of growing food would deploy talents from all spheres – digital, biological and physical. Precision agriculture would be the norm.
I envision a Malaysia with sufficient food supply, safe for consumption and a restored biodiversity, all without affecting livelihood of our planters.