Sun, May 03, 2015 - Page 14 News List

Dutch saltwater potatoes offer hope for world’s hungry

By Maude Brulard  /  AFP, DEN HOORN, Netherlands

A worker sorts potatoes before packaging them at the Salty Potato Farm on Jan. 28 in Den Hoorn, Netherlands.

Photo: AFP

A small field on an island off the Netherlands’ northern coast promises one answer to the problem of how to feed the world’s ever-growing population: potatoes and other crops that grow in saltwater.

Every day, swathes of farmland somewhere in the world become unusable because of salty soil, but farmers here on windswept Texel are finding solutions using traditional methods.

The team headed by farmer Mark van Rijsselberghe has planted about 30 types of potato and their approach is simple: Anything that dies in the saline environment is abandoned, and anything that lives “we try to follow up on,” Van Rijsselberghe said. “It’s faster.”

The experiments do not just target potatoes, but also look at how other crops grow in saltwater, including carrots, strawberries and lettuce. The plants are irrigated using pumps that manage water down to the drop, so the plant and soil salinity can be accurately measured and the effect of “sweet” rain water taken into account.

Van Rijsselberghe, 60, started the Salty Potato Farm about 10 years ago in the hope of helping the world’s malnourished.

The team, supported by Amsterdam University, uses neither genetically modified organisms nor laboratories in their quest for food that grows in salty environments.

With more than 5,000 varieties, the potato is the world’s fourth-most popular food crop, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Plants whose ancestors grew near or on the sea, but have moved inland with human populations, are likely still to have the necessary genes.

“It could be a hundred, it could be a thousand years ago, they still are capable of coping with saline surroundings,” Van Rijsselberghe said.

While today much research is focused on improving the yield of crops, the Dutch team has taken the opposite approach: trying to grow crops on land previously considered unusable.

The bespectacled farmer jokes that in a country where much of the land lies below sea level, “we are so afraid of the sea that until 10 years ago we didn’t dare to do anything with sea water and growing plants.”

The world loses about 2,000 hectares of agricultural land a day to salt-induced degradation in 75 countries, caused by bad or absent irrigation, according to the UN Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

The problem today affects an area the size of France — about 62 million hectares or 20 percent of the world’s irrigated lands, up from 45 million hectares in the early 1990s.

Solutions to make the land cultivable once more are too expensive for most of the areas, including the basin of the Yellow River in China, the Euphrates in Syria and Iraq and the Indus Valley in Pakistan.

The team on Texel has already sent thousands of its potatoes to Pakistan, where they were successful, said Van Rijsselberghe, who will send more plants next year.

These “salt” potatoes could transform the lives of thousands of farmers in affected regions and, in the long term, those of about 250 million people who live on salt-afflicted soil.

The potato was introduced to Europe from Peru in the 16th century and became popular because of its ability to feed people during the continent’s frequent famines.

However, over-reliance on the crop was potentially disastrous, with a blight leading to the devastating 19th-century Irish potato famine.

Today, about 800 million people in the world are undernourished, according to the FAO, with salt degradation threatening 10 percent of the global cereal crop.

This story has been viewed 2809 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top