Feature Stories

Seeds of Promise for Farmers

Staff Report

August 2005

Farming communities in Belarus and Ukraine suffered heavily from the Chernobyl accident. Radiation contamination of farm lands was widespread – in Belarus alone, more than a million hectares of agricultural land were contaminated to some degree by radionuclides, making crops and foodstuffs in the region hard to sell. Though contamination levels often stand well below the conservative limits for foodstuffs set by the Codex Alimentarius of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), consumers are wary and the farm market remains depressed.

Signs are that a new crop – a yellow flowering, mustard-type plant called rapeseed -- could help turn the situation around for many farmers, offering them an alternative "clean" product and providing a new source of industrial lubricants. Rapeseed contains colza oil, which can be processed into machine lubricants as well as cooking oils. Belarus scientists have found that some rapeseed varieties take up and store radionuclides, in this case caesium-137 and strontium-90, from the soil in their stalks and seed coats, but not in the seeds.

Through its joint programme with the Food and Agriculture Organization, the IAEA is helping the Belarus Research Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry (BRISSA) investigate rapeseed’s potential. The Institute already has identified varieties that could provide high seed yields, and about 20,000 hectares of contaminated land were sown with rapeseed in the mid-1990s. Since then, more rapeseed has been planted, exceeding 50,000 hectares in regions of Gomel and Mogilev. Based on results of scientific investigations, rapeseed varieties were selected and optimum growing conditions were identified that enabled as much as a threefold reduction in the uptake of radionuclides.

The aim today is to launch a pilot plant for producing lubricants from the rapeseed crop, specifically machine oils needed in forestry and other lubricants which the country largely imports. IAEA-supported expert missions have laid the groundwork for a pilot scale refinery near a sawmill in Mozyr, and a laboratory for quality control has been set up in Mozyr for analyzing both raw materials and end products in line with international standards. Belarussian authorities, who have been upgrading BRISSA’s laboratory and improving the mill site in preparation for the next stages of work, reported recently that a production line for processing rapeseed oil is planned for operation in the coming months.

While important technical issues remain to be studied, and greater funding is needed, the project is demonstrating to farmers that their land can be recovered for safe and productive uses. Over the coming years, the FAO/IAEA project seeks to stimulate cooperative efforts leading to job opportunities and profitable markets for more of the country’s farmers.