Could Genetically Modifying Plants to Process Salt Be the Future of Agriculture?

CC BY 2.0. Balazs Gardi/Flickr

The plants we rely on for our staple foods from wheat to rice, from corn to soybeans, wouldn't survive in salty soil. But with sea levels rising, agricultural land on the East and West Coasts and the Gulf of Mexico will soon be in trouble.

You may not have noticed it yet, but the the world is losing land to sea level rise at a fast rate. "Each week the world loses an area larger than Manhattan to salt-degradation," said Zafar Adeel, of the UN University. That amounts to about 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of potential farmland every minute.

"Efforts to restore those lands to full productivity are essential as world population and food needs grow, especially in the developing world," added Adeel.

Preventing soil from salt contamination is tricky and can be expensive. Gypsum fertilizer and deep tilling - or mixing soil - can help, but scientists are looking for a more concrete solution.

That's why a new study from the UN University suggests that we take a leaf from the book of salt-loving plants. These plants have external salt bladders that process salt. Using genetic codes from salty plants, called halophytes, scientists could genetically modify our main agricultural crops.

"This strategy has never been targeted by breeders and, therefore, could add a new and very promising dimension to breeding salinity-tolerant crops," said study co-author Sergey Shabala in a press release.

Of course, there is a lot of research left before this strategy will be possible. Scientists need to figure out how to trigger genes that cause the development of a salt bladder in crops.

In the mean time, edible halophytes could be a viable solution. Already, seaweed crackers and pickleweed are on the market, but they have yet to become a regular part of the North American diet.