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Salt-Tolerant Plants: The Crop of the Future

Farmers along India’s coast struggle to make a living, owing their hardships to the rising sea level, an issue negatively impacting countries around the world. Scientists believe there is a solution: salt-tolerant plants.

According to a study done by the Indian Space Organization (ISO) and the Central Water Commission (CWC), the coast of India has lost nearly 96.6 square miles over the past 15 years.

Due a combination of increased sea level and natural disasters including cyclones and tsunamis, Indian scientists from the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) are left with few options.

“The biggest problem in India is just the very large population. We can say people can relocate, but where could we even accommodate all those who need to move inland?” said M.S. Swaminathan.

Since the rising sea level is becoming a crisis, M.S. Swaminathan scientists have created a small greenhouse with salt-tolerant plants known as halophytes to test crossbreeding and gene modification. Currently, 350 salt-tolerant plant species could possibly become crops in the future.

“Saltwater agriculture is considered a futuristic area. But it really shouldn’t be,” said marine biologist V. Selvam, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation’s Director of Coastal Research. “Very soon there won’t be enough land and water to meet our needs.”

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the world population is set to rise nine billion by 2050, driving the demand for food up 60 percent. It is imperative for world leaders to find nearly 296 million acres of farmland to keep up with the staggering increase of food.

University of Arizona Environmental Science professor Edward Glenn believes the world’s irrigated acreage could be increased 50 percent by reusing saline water and salinized crop fields for halophytes.

“As with aquaculture replacing wild fisheries, it is inevitable that halophytes will have their day,” he said.

Unfortunately, in small villages along the coast of India, salt-tolerant plants are negatively impacting the area.

Within the village of Tetakudi, salt-tolerant plants Salicornia brachiate and Suaeda maritime are known to the villagers as “chicken feet” due to their weed-like growth. The plants’ uncontrolled growth has already forced 12 families to move elsewhere.

If this trend continues, experts say these costal regions will be forced to grow non-food crops including biofuels.

Alexandra Korman

Sources: BBC, CBC, Hindustan Times
Photo: CBC