mauritius tomatoes_credit farei

Image credit: FAREI

Irradiation has been used to develop new tomato varieties in the Indian Ocean country of Mauritius.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), assisted the national Food and Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (FAREI) to develop new tomato varieties using the nuclear technology.

The new high yielding and heat tolerant tomato seeds have now been distributed to farmers, in a bid to protect a national industry valued at US$14m.

Mauritius has an annual tomato production of 11,000 tonnes from 750 hectares of planting.

Fatma Sarsu, plant breeder and geneticist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, said global warming poses a serious threat to fresh produce production globally.

“Rising temperatures can cause heat stress in crops, influencing yield and consequently posing a serious income threat to farmers and a food security threat for the country,” said Sarsu.

“Nuclear technology has been used worldwide to develop new varieties of crops that are more resilient to climate change and meet the needs of growing populations.”

It is understood tomato yields can fall by up to 80 per cent during excessive temperatures, hampering local supply and forcing Mauritius to import processed tomato products.

“During calamities there is a reduction in the production of tomato, which gives rise to an increase in price,” explained Rita Devi Nowbuth, principal research scientist at FAREI. “People have to resort to imported tomato in processed form as there is a ban on the importation of fresh tomato.”

The IAEA has been helping Mauritius with developing new varieties of tomatoes since 2007 through multiple technical cooperation projects.

Seeds from one local tomato variety were irradiated at the joint FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. They were then grown in a growth chamber and screened for characteristics such as growth rate, shape and colour, and for traits such as heat tolerance and yield potential.

Once suitable plants were identified, the seeds were sent back to Mauritius for field testing in locations representing the different agroclimatic environments of the country. Several experts from Mauritius received fellowship training at the FAO/IAEA labs on the technology.

In September 2019, three new high-yielding varieties – named Summer King, Summer Star and Rising Star – were released and distributed to more than 100 farmers, and demand for them continues to grow, according to Banumati Saraye, principal investigator and breeder of these varieties at FAREI.

“We are multiplying the seeds to make them available at reasonable prices and encouraging tomato growers to save seeds from their own production for further planting,” said Saraye.