With the rapidly increasing population and ever increasing consumption of resources, the world is facing a food crisis.
Local solutions to providing food are gaining ground, especially in times of epidemics, such as the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, which frequently cause hiccups in movements of goods and individuals.
Saline agriculture has been posited as a one such solution to the global food crisis, contributing to an increase in the local production of some crops. This method of growing food as one solution to the crisis has been put forward by six experts and agricultural stakeholders during an online webinar organised by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last week.
“The current situation that the world is living in during the COVID-19 pandemic gives us many lessons, among them the important role salt agriculture can play in supporting countries and societies in providing food locally,” said Mohamed Hussein Al-Emadi, Iran’s permanent representative to the FAO.
“This is especially in countries that face the problem of saline soils, which are common in the Middle East,” Al-Emadi added, “These countries face the problem of food fragility, and depend on importing a large portion of their food.”
The pandemic and lockdown measures have pushed the world to focus on opportunities to produce food locally, following the disruption to imports of products and equipment used in agriculture. Local food production is, of course, dependent on the availability and potential of water and soil.
Dionysia-Angeliki Lyra, an expert with the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), notes that the world’s population is projected to increase by 1.7 billion by 2050.
This will increase the pressure on agricultural resources and food, and will increase food production by as much as 60%. This is difficult to achieve due to the high rates of soil degradation, which are further exacerbated by climate change.
However, saline agriculture can help in mitigating the effects and impacts of climate change whilst contributing to improved food security and improving degraded soils. It also has the potential to relieve pressure on good quality water and soil, whilst also helping local communities become more resilient and adapt to climate change.
At the same time, it exploits dry areas and low-quality water resources, whilst providing new sources of food. Saline agriculture would have the added benefit of increasing animal feed, biofuels, and fabric, whilst also providing job opportunities, particularly for women and youth.
According to the participants in the discussion, various saline plants can either be used for their medicinal properties, or as food for humans such as quinoa, sea kale, millet. Plants such as Atriplex, or saltbushes, and grasses such as panicum, can be used for animal feed.
Arjen de Vos, founder of The Salt Doctors Center in the Netherlands which brings together specialists to create agricultural practice solutions, says there are about 400m hectares of saline soils worldwide. These areas alone, which are moderately saline enough for famers to grow a number of food crops on, would be enough to provide food for nearly 2 billion people.
“One of the clearest examples of these salty environments is the Egyptian Delta environment, for which the sabkha or saline areas represent 40% of the total area, and 70% of these salty areas are moderate to low salinity levels, despite farmers’ complaints about soil salinity,” de Vos explains.
De Vos’ centre tested 800 strains of 50 types of crops under certain field conditions in the Netherlands. It was found that potatoes, carrots, beetroots, and cauliflower, among other crops, showed higher tolerance to moderate salinity, and produced a high yield.
“It is more than just a crop. It is about the cultivation strategy. In order for a successful cultivation experiment to succeed, there is a set of conditions and circumstances that must be met,” de Vos added, “These conditions include the appropriate climatic conditions for planting each crop, and a sufficient amount of water, in addition to training farmers to agricultural best practices and product marketing, as well as private sector engagement.”
He also mentioned a Dutch government-funded project focusing on improving Egypt’s agricultural practices and building capacity by training university students and staff on field work in saline agriculture.
Lyra adds that the ICBA is implementing a number of projects in countries such as Morocco, where five varieties of salt crops have been cultivated. The projects have contributed to the involvement of women and local communities, and the cultivation of crops such as quinoa.
One of the most famous types of plants cultivated by the centre is Salicornia, a salt-tolerant flowering succulent, well-known in the Netherlands and the UK. It is often irrigated using sea water, and can be used as a biofuel as well as for animal feed.
“Salicornia is better than asparagus, as it is rich in minerals and sugar, and contains calcium and magnesium that are beneficial to bone health,” Lyra said, “Awareness of the role of salt plants in food security must be raised to encourage farmers and consumers to accept it.”
According to Lyra, the centre is implementing two projects in Egypt, one of which will grow quinoa in the New Valley governorate, with the second seeing salicornia planted in the Red Sea governorate. It will assess market demand for the crops in addition to building capacities and educating farmers on cultivation strategies for these crops. Awareness campaigns will also be created to highlight the different products that can be extracted from the crops.
In ICBA’s UAE headquarters, the project provides farmers with educational and training film materials translated into Arabic and Urdu to educate farmers on growing these grains. These have been produced in addition to producing mobile apps for use in farming operations.
De Vos hopes that his centre would be able to create a network of stations worldwide to conduct local tests, and build local capacities. At the same time, it would stimulate innovation in saline agriculture, putting it on the agenda of the concerned international agencies. Work would also be carried out to ensure awareness of saline agriculture reaches the largest number of farmers around the world.
Participants in the webinar pointed out that despite its benefits, saline cultivation faces some challenges, including the difficulty of persuading farmers to grow these grains.
Plants grown in saline conditions can also produce an abundant crop, but this depends on providing the right environment in terms of soil, climate and good water management, which makes application more difficult. And despite their abundant crops and good profits, saline-grown crops remain small scale and need substantial support for expansion.