Saltwater could help stop future food shortages

Photo by Simon Fanger on Unsplash

Chinese scientists have developed salt-tolerant strains of rice in a bid to ensure food security as sea levels rise from climate change.

China has over 1 million kilometres of land that has high salinity levels in the soil. Salty and alkaline land makes it difficult for crops to grow because the salt dehydrates them, slowing photosynthesis and respiration.

Now a solution is at hand. A research team led by Yuan Longping (who passed away in 2021) successfully created a salt resistant strain known as “seawater rice” as it is grown in salty soil near the sea. The strains were created by 'switching on' a gene from a strain of wild rice that is known to be more resistant to saline and alkali.

Using the new crop in test fields in Tianjin, Northern China, scientists recorded a yield of 4.6 metric tons per acre last year, which is higher than the national average for production of standard rice varieties.

China has the highest rice consumption in the world, consuming around 149 million metric tons of rice between 2020-2021, with this figure forecasted to increase over the next few years as population and wealth grows.

Worldwide, the need to develop salt resistant crops has never been more urgent.

As sea levels rise, salt levels increase in the rivers and aquifers that irrigate fields. This is only expected to escalate due to higher-intensity weather events driven by climate change - the effects of which will hit the poorest coastal communities hardest.

To tackle this several other countries including India, the Netherlands, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates are developing crop varieties that can withstand some salty soils. Known as halophytes, these crops thrive in waters with high salt levels.

For example, a project on Scotland's West Coast uses water from the Atlantic Ocean to grow vegetables. Led by Glasgow-based Seawater Solutions they build artificial saltmarsh ecosystems that can grow seasonal vegetables such as samphire.

Meanwhile the Salt Farm Foundation, based in the Netherlands, has set up 16 fields in seven countries on the North Sea to test the salt tolerance of various crops. The researchers found certain varieties of potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, beetroots and strawberries have high salt tolerance.

With countries around the world racing to develop staple crops that can thrive regardless of how salty the soil is, the test results from China certainly point to a new way of farming that protects food and water security for future generations.