Climate change poses significant food and water scarcity risks in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions. Alongside ongoing efforts to mitigate climate change, solutions are also needed to address its immediate impact. Saline agriculture is one such potential solution, offering an alternative to conventional agriculture that could prove vital in facing these challenges. Modern research dates back as early as 1954 at the US Salinity Laboratory, with global initiatives to develop this approach now underway throughout Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, China, Morocco, and Egypt.

    Climate Change Poses a Variety of Agricultural Challenges

    Climate change has already begun to impact agriculture in many regions, bringing a variety of unique challenges. Regions with existing food and water scarcity are among the most severely at risk. Farmlands are experiencing increased flooding, groundwater salinization has become more prevalent, and the overall combination of sea level rise and unpredictable weather patterns stands to reduce the total amount of arable land.

    Freshwater is a vital resource that is facing both increasing demand and dwindling supply. Just 3 percent of the world’s water is freshwater, and two-thirds of that is frozen in glaciers. The United Nations Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation highlights that agriculture uses nearly 72 percent of globally available freshwater. Today, 771 million people lack access to clean water, and more than 2.2 billion do not have access to safe, managed drinking water services.

    As the global population continues to rise, water and land resources will only become scarcer. Many agricultural practices, such as excessive groundwater extraction and improper use of fertilizers and other chemicals, significantly degrade soil quality. Wastewater from industries of all kinds also poses a threat in regions that do not have effective water management regulations. In many areas, increased soil salinity poses a threat to agriculture, with 2015 estimates stating that 33 percent of irrigated agricultural land has become affected by high salinity, with seawater flooding in coastal regions becoming an increasingly common threat.

    Devastated farmland in coastal Bangladesh (Photo: Abu Siddique / Mongabay)

    A lack of freshwater and increasingly saline soils makes growing many conventional crops increasingly difficult, as they do not have the necessary salt tolerance. Fields must be irrigated with precious freshwater, as the use of more readily available and less valuable saltwater or brackish water would kill the crops. Saline agriculture encompasses a variety of burgeoning techniques and technologies to grow crops in salinized soils or with saltwater or brackish water irrigation.

    The Benefits of Saline Agriculture

    The use of saline agriculture techniques could significantly reduce the amount of freshwater committed to agriculture. As demand increases and supply drops, this may be absolutely essential in providing enough drinking water for future generations. The use of saltwater or brackish water in irrigation will conserve freshwater and increase the sustainability of agriculture as a whole.

    Saline agriculture may also be vital in ensuring a reliable food supply. Food scarcity is a serious concern, with prices rising worldwide and famine in the most vulnerable regions. Saline agriculture makes it possible to put salinized soil to use, combating the shrinking amount of arable farmland. Farmers can continue farming on land that would otherwise provide lower yields or be entirely unsuitable, reinforcing global food supply.

    Challenges in Implementing Saline Agriculture

    Saline agriculture may be a necessary solution for the future, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t bring its own challenges with it. The most basic application of saline agriculture is through careful crop selection, as many crops are more tolerant of salt. Some prime examples include barley, camelina, rye, safflower, sunflower, and sugar beets. This limits the variety of crops that can be grown, reducing crop variety.

    saline agriculture
    Experimental saline agriculture fields in Shandong Province, China (Photo: Xinhua / Zhu Zheng)

    Implementing saline agriculture also requires the use of new techniques and technologies that may prove difficult in practice. Even with purpose-built equipment, handling saltwater and brackish water is challenging. The higher risk of corrosion to irrigation equipment increases both equipment purchase and maintenance costs. Saltwater and brackish water irrigation may also impact the environment around agricultural land in ways that haven’t yet been understood.

    Even when implementing effective crop selection and irrigation techniques for saline agriculture, crop yields are generally lower than in conventional agriculture using arable land. While this poses a severe problem and can make saline agriculture economically unviable, these techniques are intended to make use of land that simply isn’t viable for conventional agriculture in the first place.

    With the techniques, skills, and knowledge required for saline agriculture being relatively new, there are many potential barriers to entry. High production costs mean that saline agriculture crop prices will be high as well. In many cases, this can be offset by the proclivity of consumers to pay more for an environmentally sound and sustainable product. As conventional agriculture continues to face additional challenges, there may be a point where there is no other option than to face the increased cost.

    Looking Toward the Future of Sustainable Agriculture

    Saline agriculture stands as a promising solution for many of the challenges posed by climate change, water scarcity, and soil degradation. These challenges are only forecasted to increase over the coming years, making further research and development of these techniques a critical undertaking. One day soon, they could provide practical methods to use otherwise unproductive farmland, conserve precious freshwater, and combat food scarcity. As industries of all kinds take a closer look at sustainability, saline agriculture stands out as an excellent opportunity for the future of sustainable agriculture.

    If you’re involved in agriculture in any capacity, we’d love to hear what you have to say about the changing landscape, the prospect of saline agriculture, and any other methods that you think can improve the sustainability of modern agriculture!


    Contributing Scientists of This Article: 

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