Nether­lands’ salt­wa­ter pota­toes of­fer­ing hope for the world’s hun­gry

The China Post - - LIFE - BY MAUDE BRULARD

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 around 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,” said Van Ri­js­sel­berghe. “It’s faster.”

The ex­per­i­ments do not just tar­get pota­toes, but also look at how other crops grow in salt­wa­ter, in­clud­ing car­rots, straw­ber­ries, onions 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” around 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 over 5,000 va­ri­eties, the potato is the world’s fourth most popular food crop, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions’ 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,” said Van Ri­js­sel­berghe.

Food Se­cu­rity

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 around 2,000 hectares (just un­der 5,000 acres) of agri­cul­tural land a day to saltin­duced degra­da­tion in 75 coun­tries, caused by bad or ab­sent ir­ri­ga­tion, ac­cord­ing to the U.N.’s 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 or 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 around 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, around 800 mil­lion peo­ple in the world are un­der-nour­ished, ac­cord­ing to the FAO, with salt degra­da­tion threat­en­ing 10 per­cent of the global ce­real crop.

Sweet Taste Not Price

The pota­toes grown here taste sweeter than those grown on nor­mal land, be­cause the plant pro­duces more sug­ars to com­pen­sate for the salty en­vi­ron­ment.

The salt ab­sorbed by the plant stays in the leaves, not in the flesh.

But the price of the pota­toes is for now pro­hib­i­tive, with one kilo (around two pounds) sell­ing for five eu­ros (just over US$5), com­pared to less than a euro for the same amount of “nor­mal” pota­toes.

“We grow around 30,000 ki­los per hectare (26,765 pounds per acre), a farmer with good con­di­tions around 60,000 ki­los,” said Robin Konijn, the farm’s fi­nan­cial direc­tor.


A worker sort pota­toes be­fore pack­ag­ing them at the Salty Potato Farm on Jan. 28, in Den Horn, The Nether­lands.

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