References to Pakistan’s nuclear technology are often made only in the context of nuclear weapons. While nuclear weapons have strengthened Pakistan’s external defense, they cannot be a remedy to its myriad of other human security challenges. To address such challenges, from economic development to food and water security, Pakistan must expand its understanding of traditional security issues.

The concept of security has become more human-centric over time. According to the United Nations Development Program’s 1994 Human Development Report, human security encompasses challenges and threats in seven areas: economic security, food security, water security, health security, political security, environmental security, and community security.

Pakistani people face several of these threats, especially in the context of climate change. Pakistan stands at 84 among 113 countries in food security, as per the 2022 Global Food Security Index (GFSI), and is the 5th most vulnerable country in the world concerning climate change. Just in 2022, climate change-induced floods caused $40 billion worth of damages, claimed 1,700 lives, affected 33 million citizens, and displaced 5.4 million people.

While Pakistan has made great strides in its use of nuclear technology in agriculture to address food security, much more can be done to protect national as well as human security.

A lesser-discussed aspect of Pakistan’s nuclear program is the peaceful application of nuclear technology for the well-being of its people and its human security development. While Pakistan has made great strides in its use of nuclear technology in agriculture to address food security, much more can be done to protect national and human security.

Addressing Food Security through Nuclear Technology

Nuclear technology has numerous peaceful applications, ranging from agriculture to consumer goods, and medicine to power production. Radioisotopes have been used in plant mutation breeding to produce varieties that are high-yield and resistant to diseases and insects. Irradiating food improves its preservation and results in longer shelf life. Nuclear desalination techniques are useful for countries with limited fresh water supply. These peaceful applications of nuclear technology can play a crucial role in addressing Pakistan’s human security challenges.

Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) has established four agriculture and biotechnology institutes in the country to apply nuclear technologies to human security issues. The four institutes — Nuclear Institute for Agriculture (NIA) at Tandojam, Sindh (1962), Nuclear Institute for Agriculture & Biology (NIAB) (1972), National Institute of Biotechnology & Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) (1994) at Faisalabad, Punjab, and Nuclear Institute for Food & Agriculture (NIFA), in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (1982) — work in areas of crop improvement, insect pest control, animal production and health, food and environmental protection, and soil-water and plant nutrition management. Their research has produced several varieties of wheat, cotton, rice, mung bean, chickpea, lentil, sugarcane, castor bean, kinnow, sesame, tomato, and brassica. These varieties are high-yielding, heat tolerant, insect and disease resistant, and have more nutritional value.

Such scientific developments can be further utilized and streamlined to combat the current food crisis that has emerged from the ongoing socioeconomic crisis in Pakistan in the last year. Inflation rose to 35 percent in March 2023, which is the highest-ever increase in the last 50 years. In the past year, the price of flour has risen by more than 45 percent, rendering it unaffordable for many Pakistanis. There are long queues to get free wheat flour with people lining up for hours but either are unable to obtain even a 10kg bag or die trying in their quest. The irony and tragedy of the situation are that a wheat shortage is happening in an agricultural country. Deteriorating economic conditions, bad governance, high inflation, and a reduction in cultivation areas have forced people to queue up for staple food items. With the right policy guidance, nuclear technology could help ease this crisis. 

Additionally, nuclear technology has the potential to aid in Pakistan’s economic recovery. PAEC scientists have created a variety of cotton, NIAB-78, which produced an additional income of Rs. 90 billion for Pakistan since its cultivation began in 1983 until the early 2000s. It brought a white revolution vis-à-vis cotton production in Pakistan. At its peak, NIAB-78 covered almost 80 percent of the cotton-cultivated areas in Punjab and Sindh. NIAB-78 resulted in an increase in cotton production from 4.7 million bales to 12.7 million bales per year. Until April 2018, 43 mutant varieties produced by NIAB have added income of $6 billion to Pakistan’s national economy. 

Cotton and related textile products make up 60 percent of the country’s overall exports. By increasing the yield and quality of this cash crop and facilitating the textile sector, Pakistan can produce much-needed revenue. Worsening economic indicators, exchange rate instability, a detrimental business atmosphere, dwindling exports, and reduced cotton production due to floods have resulted in the shutdown of several textile mills. Seven million people have so far lost their livelihoods because of the closure of textile mills. PAEC’s agriculture institutes may produce high-yield and disease-resistant cotton varieties but their impact on human security and the national economy will remain limited if supporting governance mechanisms are absent.

New Climate Change Technologies

Climate change is exacerbating the problems of soil salinity in Pakistan particularly due to increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. This situation is especially dire in the Indus Basin, where the majority of Pakistan’s agricultural land is located. As a result, farmers are facing declining crop yields, reduced agricultural productivity, and increased economic losses. In recent years, PAEC’s agriculture institutes have channeled their efforts toward addressing the effects of climate change as well. NIFA is developing climate-smart agriculture techniques to produce high-yielding plant varieties that are resistant to the effects of climate change. NIFA has also commenced work to maintain soil fertility, address water scarcity, and develop vertical farming for high-value crops.

PAEC scientists have contributed to the economic utilization of saline lands for farmers to use such lands for forage production. NIAB’s projects on Biosaline Research Stations demonstrated the feasibility of growing useful, salt-tolerant plant species on such lands. For a country where salinity affects 25 percent of agricultural land, these projects are not only benefiting Pakistan at present but will pay dividends when the soil fertility depletes over time. Cultivating salt-resistant crop varieties will eventually help address food insecurity in the country.

Does nuclear technology address human security? 

Pakistan’s experience with exploring nuclear technologies underscores that it does have the requisite expertise to develop technical solutions to problems of food insecurity and climate change. However, Pakistan’s experience also shows that technical solutions are not enough on their own. A consolidated effort is required to address these challenges. In addition to groundbreaking research on nuclear technologies, Pakistan needs an effective policy to leverage and best utilize the work of scientists.

If government departments and international organizations do not synergize their efforts, the potential for nuclear technologies to enhance human security will go unrealized. Pakistan’s ongoing Fourth Country Program Framework (CPF) for 2020–2025 with IAEA highlights priority areas within nontraditional security including food and agriculture, human health, climate change, environmental protection, water resource management, and nuclear power development. Pakistan’s strategy of capitalizing on its partnership with IAEA will build synergies between institutions and help in addressing the nontraditional security challenges through peaceful applications of nuclear technology.

Nuclear agriculture and biotechnology institutes may produce new crop varieties but if the state does not fix the management and governance issues related to the agriculture sector, then high-yield crops cannot be of much use.

For a state which has been largely preoccupied with defense against external security threats, a paradigm shift is needed to incorporate human security into Pakistan’s threat spectrum. Pakistan’s first National Security Policy, released in 2022, refreshingly adopted a citizen-centric approach. It underscored a more comprehensive approach towards security which moved away from the traditional and military-centric angle. However, before it could be implemented, Pakistan was embroiled in a protracted political crisis that continues unabated.

Using nuclear technology to provide human security is one way of addressing a much larger and more complex challenge. Nuclear agriculture and biotechnology institutes may produce new crop varieties but if the state does not fix the management and governance issues related to the agriculture sector, then high-yield crops cannot be of much use. A more comprehensive approach that involves the use of nuclear technology is necessary to effectively address Pakistan’s human security challenges.

Also Read: Facing a Climate Crisis, Nuclear Energy can be a Viable Option for Pakistan


Image 1: Shakeel Ahmed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Image 2: Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images

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