BANGUI, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tucked away on the University of Bangui campus in the capital of Central African Republic, a portacabin surrounded by palm trees shelters neat rows of test-tubes filled with green shoots.
Here scientists are running a laboratory using advanced nuclear-derived techniques to find a solution to one of the war-torn country’s most urgent and deadliest problems: hunger.
But the conflict has hit their work too. In 2013, as the government was toppled and fighting erupted on the streets, Simplice Yandia was poring over his notes in the tiny lab when he heard loud gunshots outside.
“I had to run away,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The next day, he came back to find the lab had been looted, with even air-conditioning units ripped from the walls.
“Everything was ruined - we had to start from scratch,” said Yandia.
Today, work is back to normal, and the researchers hope that combining nature with nuclear physics will enable them to develop improved crop varieties that can withstand destructive plant diseases.
Last year, Central African Republic was rated the world’s hungriest country, according to the Global Hunger Index, which tracks under-nutrition, stunted growth, low child weight and child mortality.
Sectarian conflict has ravaged the Central African nation since 2013 when Muslim-majority Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize, triggering a backlash by predominantly Christian and animist fighters.
Five years into the conflict, marked by waves of ethnic cleansing, today every second person goes without enough to eat.
While most of the country depends on farming for survival, the World Food Programme estimates crop production is down by more than half compared to pre-crisis levels.
For the Bangui university scientists, one solution lies with the green shoots of cassava - also known as manioc - growing in their lab.
Cassava has long been the country’s number-one staple crop, and is key to keeping hunger at bay, they believe.
First introduced into the region by Portuguese explorers from Brazil in the 16th century, cassava roots are rich in carbohydrate while the leaves provide protein, fibre and vitamins.
Cassava is a versatile food, used to make pastes, soups, powders and animal feed. Its roots are boiled, fried and ground, and its leaves are eaten too.
But today harvests are in danger. On top of the war that has seen armed groups take over swathes of farmland, burning entire fields, a destructive disease is threatening cassava.
“Cassava mosaic virus is a main problem for cassava production in Central African Republic,” said Ljupcho Jankuloski, a plant breeder at the Vienna-based Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, run jointly by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The disease, found throughout the country, affects an estimated 85 percent of cassava plants, disfiguring leaves, stunting growth, and sometimes destroying the root entirely, he added. The effects of climate change are making the disease more virulent and bringing new threats for cassava, scientists say.
In response, irradiation techniques derived from nuclear science are being used to create healthier cassava strains that could better resist diseases and boost yields significantly.
Irradiation works by zapping infected plants or food with radioactive beams, killing bacteria, and is also used to induce genetic variation in plants.
Cassava shoots were sent from Central African Republic to the FAO/IAEA labs in Vienna to be irradiated in 2016. They were then replanted back in Africa in a bid to develop more disease-resistant crop varieties.
The technique speeds up natural mutation in plants, said Jankuloski. “(It) mimics the creation of variability in plants caused by naturally occurring background radiation,” he explained.
Some campaigners oppose the use of irradiation on food, but the World Health Organization says the technology is safe.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it could also be used to prevent the spread of disease in livestock through feed.
Irradiated food - including meat, shellfish, and fresh fruit and vegetables - has been approved for consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, while astronauts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration eat meat that has been sterilised by irradiation to avoid getting sick while in space.
“The irradiation does not make the plant radioactive, like a medical X-ray does not make a person radioactive,” said Jankuloski, noting the method has been used worldwide for more than 70 years and has generated over 3,200 crop varieties.
The word “nuclear” usually conjures up images of destruction for humankind, said Ephrem Kosh-Komba, vice dean of the science faculty at the University of Bangui.
“But while some people use nuclear science to make bombs, to destroy ... this same nuclear knowledge can actually help humanity through development projects,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Central African Republic, which was under French colonial rule until 1960, does not possess nuclear weapons or a nuclear industry – but it does have uranium deposits, the raw material used for making atomic bombs and nuclear energy.
Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, later disgraced for accepting personal gifts of diamonds from Central African Republic’s self-declared Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, bought uranium from the African state for France’s nuclear industry.
In recent years, armed groups have clashed over areas of Central African Republic that are rich in uranium, such as Bakouma in the southeast, or in other natural resources like diamonds and gold, as they vie for power to exploit what they see as potential sources of revenue.
In 2013, rebels burned down the National Agency for Radiation Protection, set up with IAEA support to ensure safety in handling radioactive materials in the mining sector.
The presence of fighters also makes it risky for scientists like Yandia to go into the field to test new cassava varieties.
The government controls little territory outside Bangui, with some 14 armed groups now spread out around the country.
But despite the threat of attack, the scientific team cannot abandon the project, said Yandia. People need to be self-sufficient in food “in order to fight against famine”.
According to the FAO, assistance to farmers, including irradiation of plants, boosted cassava production in 2016 but harvests were still too low to meet the country’s needs.
“If we give up, it means we are letting down the farmers,” said Yandia. “We have to take risks, dig in, go to the field, improve our knowledge and give them good material for planting.” (Reporting by Inna Lazareva, Editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)