Scientists are growing crops with salt water that could help save us from starvation

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Scientists are growing crops with salt water that could help save us from starvation
The SaliCrop team from left to right: Oron Bet Or, Carmit Oron, Ṛcā Godbole, Sharon Devir, Shimon Rachmilevitch.Guy Shery
  • An ag-tech company has developed an army of resilient crops by growing them with salt water.
  • These crops are better at surviving salty soils, which is a growing problem in our warming world.
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Saltwater is bad news for most crops, but not for a series of tomatoes, alfalfa, onions, and rice sprouting in a lab in Israel.

These crops are the non-GMO brainchild of Ṛcā Godbole, a plant molecular biologist and co-founder of SaliCrop. And they don't just grow, they thrive on salt water.

Over the last four years, SaliCrop has been testing its seed enhancement technology on tomatoes in southern Spain, where devastating drought has triggered severe salinization, the process where soils become too salty for crops to grow efficiently.

Scientists are growing crops with salt water that could help save us from starvation
SaliCrop has been testing their seed enhancement technology on tomato farms in southern Spain for the last four years.Guy Shery

With SaliCrop's seeds, however, participating tomato farmers have seen a 10% to 17% increase in crop yields, earning them an extra $1,600 per hectare, SaliCrop CEO Carmit Oron told Business Insider.

Spain is just one of many places worldwide with a serious salinization issue. A perfect storm of years-long irrigation, warming global temperatures, and sea level rise have made 20% to 50% of irrigated soils worldwide too salty to be fertile. This costs the global economy an estimated $27 billion per year in lost crops.

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Meanwhile, the number of mouths to feed continues to grow with the global human population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, the UN estimates. "How do we grow more on lands that are becoming degraded? This was the main question and the motivation for establishing SaliCrop," Oron said.

Godbole founded SaliCrop with Sharon Devir, an agricultural engineer, with a grand mission: Help farmers who face the challenges of our rapidly changing world and prevent starvation for potentially billions of people.

"We believe this solution is a must," Devir told BI.

SaliCrop's saltwater success

Scientists at SaliCrop are developing an army of resilient crops that can grow under the stresses of our changing world, like saltier soils and warmer temperatures.

Salt naturally occurs in soils everywhere, but too much of it can make it harder for plants to absorb water and nutrients, which stunts their growth, reduces crop yields, and ultimately threatens global food production.

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Scientists are growing crops with salt water that could help save us from starvation
Rice seedlings planted in salty soil.Nuttaya99 / Getty Images

Across the globe, more than 1.5 billion people live with soils that have become too salty to grow crops efficiently. And it's predicted to only get worse.

In India, for example, 44% of the land is already saline, and researchers estimate that salinization will affect 50% of the country by 2050.

The problem farmers worldwide can't escape is warmer average temperatures, which speed up evaporation in the soil, concentrating the salt within that soil — especially in arid regions.

Flooding from rising sea levels also poses a threat, particularly to coastal farmlands, because it deposits more salt into the soil and groundwater. Poor irrigation practices, such as insufficient water application, using saline water, and not maintaining adequate drainage can also lead to salty soils.

Scientists are growing crops with salt water that could help save us from starvation
Irrigation can drive salinization, especially if farmers are watering their crops with salty water.Karl Weatherly / Getty Images

To help farmers combat all these factors, SaliCrop is working to bring its solution to eight different countries, and is already fielding calls from seed companies in Europe, India, and Africa that are seeking immediate solutions to improve their crop yield, Oron said.

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"Plants have certain environmental stress-inducible genes that act as internal alarms," Godbole explained in a press release. "When there is too much salt, or too much heat, these alarms go off and the plant enters defense mode."

Godbole figured out a way to harness those alarm bells by exposing plants to stress early in their growth cycle. In this case, that means watering crops with salt water in their lab. That way, when they're planted in salty soil, the crops already have their defenses up, which makes them less sensitive to salty conditions.

Based on their test data, this strategy cuts crop losses due to stress in half, and it only takes about a year to achieve that result, Devir said.

"We calibrate our technology to each crop, to each species, and even to each batch of species," Devir said. This allows them to precisely target the best resilience response and maximize yield for each type of crop.

Seeding the future with non-GMO crops

"We believe that it's a matter of one to two years until we will have a global footprint with our solution," Devir said. So far, SaliCrop has been working with farms 25 acres to 250 acres in size. Globally, over 3,700 acres — just over four times the size of NYC's Central Park — of farmland grow SaliCrop seeds.

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Scientists are growing crops with salt water that could help save us from starvation
Harvesting an alfalfa crop on a field in Kansas.Andy Sacks / Getty Images

But SaliCrop isn't the only company targeting a non-GMO solution. Red Sea Farms, for example, is a Saudi Arabian company that uses selective breeding to grow crops that can be irrigated with salt water. In Sweden, a company called OlsAro is growing salt-tolerant wheat by using AI to select traits that improve its resilience.

Worldwide, up to 783 million people face chronic hunger. The UN has set an ambitious goal to eradicate hunger by 2030, but it'll need innovative solutions to improve agricultural productivity in the face of climate change.

Non-GMO resilient crops are one possible answer. "SaliCrop is a good example of how you can bring to the world a cheap, reliable solution with no negative environmental effect, just to produce more food," Devir said. "We believe in it."

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