December 5, 2008

Saltwater Crops Could Help Global Food Shortage

Global food shortages could be helped by the integration of plants that grow in salty conditions, according to researchers.

The Earth's water is made up of only 1 percent freshwater, and many areas are suffering weakened crop production due to a gradual increase in salt levels in water supplies.

"Salinisation is irreversible," says Professor Jelte Rozema from the department of systems ecology at the Free University, Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. "Sooner or later mankind has to accept the world is becoming more saline."

Writing in the journal Science, researchers say that the integration of salty environments into agriculture is imminent, and farmers need to begin considering plants that already thrive in salty areas.

Furthermore, the rising cost of bringing in freshwater to irrigate traditional crops may force producers to turn to salt water agriculture.

"We have limited amounts of freshwater - most of it is used for drinking water. Gradually it will be profitable to think of brackish water and sea water as a resource." said Rozema.

Researchers believe that such wild plants could be crossbred to produce larger quantities. Plants like sea kale and asparagus-like samphire, which grow along the coast in many countries have been eaten for thousands of years, but it is only recently that their potential has been seen as a substitute for more traditional commercial crops.

Rozema mentioned one company in the Netherlands that is already cultivating sea kale with great success.
 "People like to get new vegetables," he said. "They know sea water is not bad for them."

Domesticated plants that are salt tolerant, such as spinach and beetroot, are closely related to samphire, and crops such as sugar beet can grow well in salty conditions.

Scientists say trying to induce salt tolerance has so far proved impossible. They now believe the genetic manipulations necessary to achieve this may too complex to be achieved at this point.


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