Worth Their Salt

Could salt-tolerant potatoes be the next big thing?

Published in the January 2016 Issue Published online: Jan 30, 2016 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Sodium chloride—it’s a commonplace, fairly unglamorous substance. Even its chemical makeup is deliciously simple: a 1-to-1 ratio of sodium and chloride ions. You know the stuff as salt, and it is everywhere. It’s such a staple that you probably had to re-gift three or four sets of salt and pepper shakers you got for your wedding. Even the most ardent of potato purists sprinkle a little salt on their crispy-skinned russet when it comes out of the oven.

Yet, despite its quietly lofty status in the culinary world, salt sure can cause problems when it comes to producing the food with which it is ultimately meant to team up. Currently, about 3.7 billion acres worldwide that might otherwise be considered arable are deemed unfit for agricultural production because of high levels of salt in the soil, with that number growing by an estimated 7 acres per minute. That “lost” acreage, according to some experts, leaves around $27 billion in agricultural production on the table annually. Another issue pops up when soil is fertile but only brackish water or seawater is available.

But some enterprising researchers don’t believe it has to be that way. For several years, Salt Farm Texel, located on the Dutch island of Texel, has been experimenting with and testing the salt tolerance of different cultivars of several crop species. Chief among the crops Salt Farm Texel works with is the potato.

“We’ve screened at least 300 varieties of potatoes in the last couple years,” says Salt Farm Texel CEO Robin Konijn. “Some of those were already on the market, and some were still in the development stage. And a few of them have been successful.”

By “successful,” Konijn means that Salt Farm Texel has developed potatoes that not only survive, but thrive in salt-affected areas and don’t require freshwater irrigation to grow. Their ultimate goal is to increase access to these potatoes, thereby contributing to more efficient use of saline lands and waters. Achieving that goal would not only increase the amount of land available for potato cultivation; it would also reduce the pressure already placed on freshwater resources, particularly in drought-stricken areas.

Konijn points to California, which has suffered from extreme drought for a few years now, as an area where salt-tolerant agriculture holds a lot of potential. “In California right now, there is a severe shortage of sweet water,” he says. “Agriculture takes about 70 percent of all available sweet water. “The amount of brackish water in the world is about equal to the amount of sweet water. So if you can work with brackish water, your chances will be much better.”

Salt Farm Texel was selected in 2014 to participate in Securing Water for Food, an initiative backed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and the South African government. The project has allowed Salt Farm Texel to team up with international water consultancy firm MetaMeta and Pakistan’s Jaffer Agro Services test its potatoes in salt-affected soils in Pakistan.

Potatoes are a major part of many Pakistanis’ diets, and the partnership sees an immense opportunity before them.

“Aside from home consumption, there is a growing chip industry in Pakistan,” says Maqbool Akhtar, head of technical and business development at Jaffer Agro Services. “So there is a lot of incentive for Pakistani growers to produce these varieties.”

The Middle East and Far East have seen major shifts in consumer preferences in the last decade, with Western snacks and fast foods making inroads. This has increased pressure in those areas of the world to increase production of crops such as potatoes. 

“Salt-tolerant varieties would decrease the fight for good, fertile soil,” says Martin van Beusekom, social business developer at MetaMeta. “The salt-tolerant potato is showing that it can reach a very attractive level of productivity even in salt-affected soil and that it can compete with varieties in fertile-soil, sweet-water areas. In that way there is a market for it.”

The researchers are quick to note that salt-tolerant agriculture is in no way meant to replace traditional growing. “If they grow potatoes in an area with plenty of water and no salinization, growers should go on with the things they do,” says Konijn.  “They do them almost perfectly already.”

Rather, the technology is aimed at introducing or increasing production of potatoes—and other crops—in areas that have proven challenging for growers in the past. After all, most of the world’s population lives near coasts and deltas, where salty and brackish water are most prevalent. The challenge lies in making the biology work, to be sure, but the end product must also be economically viable.

“If we want to grow salt-tolerant potatoes, it must be competitive,” sayd Konijn. “Salt-tolerant agriculture is not only importing the right potatoes, putting them in the ground, then doing everything else like the old days. It’s a totally different approach to agriculture. You have to use different fertilizers, develop a great drainage system, change the way you do your irrigation. This is a new area, and there’s so much to discover.”