Adapting to Climate Change: Salt-Tolerant Biofuel Crops Could Turn Saline Soil Back Into Cultivable Land

salt-tolerant plants photo

Image: IRRI Images

As salinization impacts agriculture around the world—another effect of climate change that will hit already-vulnerable places and people the hardest—farmers, small-scale farmers in particular, have to figure out how to adapt. In Pakistan, for example, AlertNet reports that the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock says more than 15 million acres of cultivable land—40 percent of the country's total—has become saline and waterlogged in the last few years. Worse, that number is said to jump by about 100,000 acres every year.

The country even has an agency called the International Waterlogging and Salinity Research Institute.

But the AlertNet story focuses on a study of the potential use of salt-tolerant plants, known as halophytes, for producing bio-ethanol:

M. Ajmal Khan, director of the Institute of Sustainable Halophyte Utilisation (ISHU) at the University of Karachi, said that salt-tolerant plants could be grown and then fermented to produce alcohol which could be used as a biofuel, reducing the need to burn fossil fuels that contribute to global warming...

"These plants do not compete for good-quality water and productive farmland. They can be potentially used to produce large amounts of biomass when sown with brackish water on saline land, without competing with conventional agriculture," Khan said. The plants grow rapidly year-round and are highly adaptive to saline soils, he said.

Of course, growing halophytes for biofuel cannot directly address hunger issues, but it does have the potential to cut down on fossil fuel consumption "without competing for good quality land and fresh water," according to the study—something that can't be said for most biofuel crops.

Even better, scientists say that halophytes could potentially return the soil to an arable state, allowing traditional food crops to be grown once again in the same area. Another bonus, halophytes are also said to capture carbon dioxide more efficiently than other plants.

Similar work is being done in India, where rising sea levels and salinity have presented challenges for agriculture.

AlertNet added that ISHU scientists have identified salt-tolerant varieties of food crops like wheat, rice, sugarcane, millet and corn, though once again, they're not alone in this work. India is researching salt-tolerant crops as well, as are scientists around the world.

More on salinity and agriculture:
Scientists Make Progress on Salt-Tolerant GM Crops
Green Your Yard, Part 2: Rethinking the Backyard
GM Investigating Frost-Tolerant Jatropha For US Market - Partners With Indian Research Co. & DoE
Nile Delta Poised to Be Sunk by Sea Level Rise - Groundwater Salinity Already a Growing Problem

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