The Use of Nuclear Technology in Agriculture

Dean Poplawski
March 14, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: A cropduster spraying pesticides over fields of crops. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While many people know the impact that nuclear technology has had on the development of electricity and ever increasing population and the need for more food at a quicker pace, we do not often give enough credit to the contributions that radiation has had on increasing the efficiency and yield of our agricultural resources. In looking at the work that has been applied to this broad concept of agriculture through nuclear energy and technology, four main areas of development emerge: the decline of pests, improvement of animal health, increased crop production, and improving food processing. [1]

Controlling Pests/Insects

Insects and pests historically have had a massive effect on agriculture from killing out entire fields of crops to causing medical issues with livestock. While insecticides/pesticides have had an impact, pests and insects are able to learn to resist certain treatments forcing greater quantities of insecticides/pesticides to be dropped on the acres and acres of fields of crops as can be seen in Fig. 1. The development of the sterile insect technique (SIT) is the most proven and common method where nuclear technology has been utilized to control or eliminate insects. [1] The SIT subjects un-hatched male insect eggs to gamma irradiation essentially sterilizing the males. These sterile insects achieve two goals at once. It acts as an environmentally safe solution to insect control and also promotes the suppression of these harmful insects. [1]

Improving Health of Animals

Radiation techniques have also had an impact on ensuring the health of animals that are important for agricultural means. Most importantly, it has a hand in feeding the animals. In developing commercial feeds, radioisotopes are used to trace the paths of food within an animal's digestive system. [1] This process provides insight into where and how quickly the food is broken down into body tissues or milk. [1] This allows for the nutritional value of the food to be determined and therefore the commercial feeds can fit the needs of each individual animal.

Increasing Crop Production

Nuclear technologies role in increasing crop production can be seen in a couple of areas, but most importantly in its impact it has had on the reduction of fertilizer. Many farmers have found benefit in reducing the amount of fertilizer they use in producing large yields as it reduces cost and lessens any environmental harm. [1] Labeling different quantities and types of fertilizers with radioisotopes allows for farmers to directly associate nutrient efficiencies and deficiencies as the labeled fertilizers are tracked as they are absorbed into specific areas of the crops. [1]

Improving Food Processing

Lastly, the preservation of already harvested or produced food is the final area of focus that nuclear technology has influenced in the broad field of agriculture. This technique is called food irradiation. Food irradiation aims to discontinue the reproductive cycle of bacteria that often causes such food to spoil. In exposing the food to controlled amounts of ionizing radiation, the DNA bonds of the targeted bacteria can be broken allowing for longer shelf life and a less likelihood of food-born diseases to develop. [1]

© Dean Poplawski. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. E. Waltar, "The Medical, Agricultural, and Industrial Applications of Nuclear Technology," Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 16 Nov 03.