Can salt-loving crops save vulnerable coasts?

Sensemaking / Can salt-loving crops save vulnerable coasts?

15 Jun 2011

Halophytes could prove a profitable solution to salinified cropland

Millions of people living in coastal communities face additional food stress from the intrusion of salt into agricultural soils, due to poor irrigation, tidal flooding and rising sea levels. Faced with such a challenge, many talk of using genetic modification to create a new strain of salt-tolerant crops.

But a very different approach is starting to reap rewards in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Here, research is focused on commercialising existing plants which naturally have a high salt tolerance.

A project funded by the Indian Government at Vedaranyam is running a trial to grow halophytes – the 2% of terrestrial plants that naturally thrive in salty conditions – on a commercial scale. Some species are already used as fodder crops, but now they’re also being considered as sources of protein in livestock feed and edible oils, and as feedstock for biofuels. Salicornia, a relative of the edible samphire found along Britain’s coasts, has caught the attention of NASA and some commercial airlines as a potential feedstock for aircraft fuel.

It’s part of a wider programme of grassroots development in the area, including restoring mangroves – which can do much to absorb the impact of tsunamis such as the one which struck Tamil Nadu in 2004.

In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, NGO Practical Action is working with farmers to develop their own crop varieties. “Farmers can breed traditional varieties for improvements themselves”, says Rachel Berger, Practical Action’s Climate Change Adviser, whereas “high-tech varieties are usually hybrids, for which they have to buy seeds each year, and which can require a lot of fertiliser and pesticide input.”

Berger hopes the Tamil Nadu halophyte programme will be a success. She argues that it offers “a more sustainable approach than the widespread conversion of [salinified] croplands to shrimp farms – as has happened in Bangladesh”.

- Tim Hirsch

Image credits: Dinesh Valke

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