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Saltwater Crops

Saltwater Crops

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Salt Water CROPS is worth review for Haiti and elsewhere.
Salt Water CROPS is worth review for Haiti and elsewhere.

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Published by: Ralph Charles Whitley, Sr. on Mar 05, 2010
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01/07/2013

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E
arth may be the Ocean Planet,but most terrestrial creatures
including humans
depend forfood on plants irrigated by freshwaterfrom rainfall, rivers, lakes, springs andstreams. None of the top five plants eat-en by people
wheat, corn, rice, pota-toes and soybeans
can tolerate salt: ex-pose them to seawater, and they droop,shrivel and die within days.One of the most urgent global prob-lems is finding enough water and landto support the world’s food needs. TheUnited Nations Food and AgricultureOrganization estimates that an addition-al 200 million hectares (494.2 millionacres) of new cropland
an areathe size of Arizona, New Mex-ico, Utah, Colorado, Idaho,Wyoming and Montana
76
Scientific American
August 1998
Irrigating Crops with Seawater
As the world’s population grows and freshwater storesbecome more precious, researchers are looking to the seafor the water to irrigate selected crops
by Edward P. Glenn, J. Jed Brown and James W. O’Leary
GLASSWORT SPECIES (here,
Salicorniabigelovii
) usually grow in coastal marsh-es. Because of their ability to flourish insaltwater, glasswort plants are the mostpromising crop to be grown so far usingseawater irrigation along coastal deserts.They can be eaten by livestock, and theirseeds yield a nutty-tasting oil.
Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
 
combined
will be needed over the next30 years just to feed the burgeoning pop-ulations of the tropics and subtropics.Yet only 93 million hectares are avail-able in these nations for farms to ex-pand
and much of that land is forest-ed and should be preserved. Clearly, weneed alternative sources of water andland on which to grow crops.With help from our colleagues, wehave tested the feasibility of seawateragriculture and have found that it workswell in the sandy soils of desert environ-ments. Seawater agriculture is defined asgrowing salt-tolerant crops on land us-ing water pumped from the ocean forirrigation. There is no shortage of sea-water: 97 percent of the water on earthis in the oceans. Desert land is alsoplentiful: 43 percent of the earth’s to-tal land surface is arid or semiarid,but only a small fraction is closeenough to the sea to make seawaterfarming feasible. We estimate that 15percent of undeveloped land in theworld’s coastal and inland salt desertscould be suitable for growing crops us-ing saltwater agriculture. This amountsto 130 million hectares of new crop-land that could be brought into humanor animal food production
withoutcutting down forests or diverting morescarce freshwater for use in agriculture.Seawater agriculture is an old idea thatwas first taken seriously after WorldWar II. In 1949 ecologist Hugo Boykoand horticulturalist Elisabeth Boykowent to the Red Sea town of Eilat dur-ing the formation of the state of Israelto create landscaping that would attractsettlers. Lacking freshwater, the Boykosused a brackish well and seawaterpumped directly from the ocean andshowed that many plants would growbeyond their normal salinity limits insandy soil [see “Salt-Water Agriculture,”by Hugo Boyko;
Scientific American,
March 1967]. Although many of theBoykos’ ideas of how plants toleratesalts have not stood the test of time,their work stimulated widespread inter-est, including our own, in extending thesalinity constraints of traditional irri-gated agriculture.Seawater agriculture must fulfill tworequirements to be cost-effective. First,it must produce useful crops at yieldshigh enough to justify the expense of pumping irrigation water from the sea.Second, researchers must develop agro-nomic techniques for growing seawa-ter-irrigated crops in a sustainable man-ner
one that does not damage the en-vironment. Clearing these hurdles hasproved a daunting task, but we havehad some success.
Salty Crops
T
he development of seawater agri-culture has taken two directions.Some investigators have attempted tobreed salt tolerance into conventionalcrops, such as barley and wheat. For ex-ample, Emanuel Epstein’s research teamat the University of California at Davisshowed as early as 1979 that strains of barley propagated for generations in thepresence of low levels of salt could pro-duce small amounts of grain when irri-gated by comparatively saltier seawater.Unfortunately, subsequent efforts to in-crease the salt tolerance of conventionalcrops through selective breeding andgenetic engineering
in which genes forsalt tolerance were added directly to theplants
have not produced good candi-dates for seawater irrigation. The uppersalinity limit for the long-term irriga-tion of even the most salt-tolerant crops,such as the date palm, is still less thanfive parts per 1,000 (ppt)
less than 15percent of the salt content of seawater.Normal seawater is 35 ppt salt, but inwaters along coastal deserts, such asthe Red Sea, the northern Gulf of Cali-fornia (between the western coast of Sonora in Mexico and Baja California)and the Persian Gulf, it is usually closerto 40 ppt. (Sodium chloride, or tablesalt, is the most prevalent salt in seawa-ter and the one that is most harmful toplant growth.)Our approach has been to domesti-cate wild, salt-tolerant plants, calledhalophytes, for use as food, forage andoilseed crops. We reasoned that chang-ing the basic physiology of a traditionalcrop plant from salt-sensitive to salt-tol-erant would be difficult and that it mightbe more feasible to domesticate a wild,salt-tolerant plant. After all, our moderncrops started out as wild plants. Indeed,some halophytes
such as grain from thesaltgrass
Distichlis palmeri
(Palmer’sgrass)
were eaten for generations bynative peoples, including the Cocopah,who live where the Colorado River emp-ties into the Gulf of California.We began our seawater agriculture ef-forts by collecting several hundred halo-phytes from throughout the world andscreening them for salt tolerance andnutritional content in the laboratory.There are between 2,000 and 3,000 spe-cies of halophytes, from grasses and
Scientific American
August 1998 77
    R    I    C    H    A    R    D    J    O    N    E    S
Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.
 
shrubs to trees such as mangroves; theyoccupy a wide range of habitats
fromwet, seacoast marshes to dry, inland sa-line deserts. In collaboration with DovPasternak’s research team at Ben Guri-on University of the Negev in Israel andethnobotanists Richard S. Felger andNicholas P. Yensen
who were then atthe University of Arizona
we foundroughly a dozen halophytes that showedsufficient promise to be grown underagronomic conditions in field trials.In 1978 we began trials of the mostpromising plants in the coastal desert atPuerto Peñasco, on the western coast of Mexico. We irrigated the plants daily byflooding the fields with high-saline (40ppt) seawater from the Gulf of Califor-nia. Because the rainfall at Puerto Peñas-coaverages only 90 millimeters a year
and we flooded our plots with an annu-al total depth of 20 meters or more of seawater
we were certain the plantswere growing almost solely on seawater.(We calculate rainfall and irrigation ac-cording to the depth in meters that fallson the fields rather than in cubic me-ters, which is a measure of volume.)Although the yields varied amongspecies, the most productive halophytesproduced between one and two kilo-grams per square meter of dry biomass
roughly the yield of alfalfa grown usingfreshwater irrigation. Some of the mostproductive and salt-tolerant halophyteswere shrubby species of 
Salicornia
(glass-wort),
Suaeda
(sea blite) and
Atriplex
(saltbush) from the family Chenopodi-aceae, which contains about 20 percentof all halophyte species. Salt grasses suchas
Distichlis
and viny, succulent-leavedground covers such as
Batis
were alsohighly productive. (These plants are notChenopodiaceae, though; they are mem-bers of the Poaceae and Batidaceae fam-ilies, respectively.)But to fulfill the first cost-effectivenessrequirement for seawater agriculture,we had to show that halophytes couldreplace conventional crops for a specificuse. Accordingly, we tested whetherhalophytes could be used to feed live-stock. Finding enough forage for cattle,sheep and goat herds is one of the mostchallenging agricultural problems in theworld’s drylands, 46 percent of whichhave been degraded through overgraz-ing, according to the U.N. EnvironmentProgram. Many halophytes have highlevels of protein and digestible carbohy-drates. Unfortunately, the plants alsocontain large amounts of salt; accumu-lating salt is one of the ways they adjustto a saline environment [
see illustrationon page 80
]. Because salt has no caloriesyet takes up space, the high salt contentof halophytes dilutes their nutritionalvalue. The high salinity of halophytesalso limits the amount an animal can eat.In open grazing situations, halophytesare usually considered “reserve-browseplants,” to which animals turn onlywhen more palatable plants are gone.Our strategy was to incorporate halo-phytes as part of a mixed diet for live-stock, replacing conventional hay foragewith halophytes to make up between30 and 50 percent of the total food in-take of sheep and goats. (These percent-ages are the typical forage levels used infattening animals for slaughter.) Wefound that animals fed diets containing
Salicornia, Suaeda
and
Atriplex
gainedas much weight as those whose diets in-cluded hay. Moreover, the quality of thetest animals’ meat was unaffected bytheir eating a diet rich in halophytes.Contrary to our initial fears, the animalshad no aversion to eating halophytes inmixed diets; they actually seemed to beattracted by the salty taste. But the ani-mals that ate a halophyte-rich diet drankmore water than those that ate hay, tocompensate for the extra salt intake. Inaddition, the feed conversion ratio of thetest animals (the amount of meat theyproduced per kilogram of feed) was 10percent lower than that of animals eat-ing a traditional diet.
Farming for Oil
T
he most promising halophyte wehave found thus far is
Salicorniabigelovii.
It is a leafless, succulent, annu-al salt-marsh plant that colonizes newareas of mud flat through prolific seedproduction. The seeds contain high lev-els of oil (30 percent) and protein (35percent), much like soybeans and otheroilseed crops, and the salt content is lessthan 3 percent. The oil is highly poly-unsaturated and similar to safflower oilin fatty-acid composition. It can be ex-tracted from the seed and refined usingconventional oilseed equipment; it isalso edible, with a pleasant, nutlike taste
Irrigating Crops with Seawater
78
Scientific American
August 1998
SEAWATER AGRICULTURE can require different agronomictechniques than freshwater agriculture. To grow saltbush, or
 Atriplex
a salt-tolerant plant that can be used to feed livestock
seawater farmers must flood their fields frequently (
left 
). In ad-dition, irrigation booms (
center 
) must be lined with plastic pipingtoprotect them from rusting when in contact with the salty wa-ter. But some techniques can remain the same: standard com- bines are used to harvest
Salicornia
seeds (
right 
), for example.
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Copyright 1998 Scientific American, Inc.

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