Dutch saltwater potatoes offer hope for world's hungry

April 29, 2015 by Maude Brulard
A worker sorts potatoes before packaging them at the Salty Potato Farm, in Den Horn, Netherlands
A worker sorts potatoes before packaging them at the Salty Potato Farm, in Den Horn, Netherlands

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 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" rainwater 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 nor laboratories in their quest for food that grows in salty environments.

With more than 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 1,000 years ago, they still are capable of coping with saline surroundings," said Van Rijsselberghe.

Food security

Dutch farmer Mark van Rijsselberghe, who launched the Salty Potato Farm
Dutch farmer Mark van Rijsselberghe, who launched the Salty Potato Farm

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 salt-induced degradation in 75 countries, caused by bad or absent irrigation, according to the UN'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.

Packaged pototoes at the Salty Potato Farm
Packaged pototoes at the Salty Potato Farm

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.

A worker sorts potatoes before packaging them at the Salty Potato Farm in Den Horn, in the Netherlands
A worker sorts potatoes before packaging them at the Salty Potato Farm in Den Horn, in the Netherlands

Today, about 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.

A testing field used by the Salty Potato Farm project to experiment with crops
A testing field used by the Salty Potato Farm project to experiment with crops

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

"We grow around 30,000 kilos per hectare, a farmer with good conditions around 60,000 kilos," said Robin Konijn, the farm's financial director.

Countries ranging from Egypt to Bangladesh and India have already asked for advice on planting their own salt-proof crops.

The team is also soon to start trying to cultivate in the salty wetlands of the Camargue in the south of France—the so-called "Miss Mignon" (French for "Miss Cutie Pie").

Explore further: Researchers find the genome of the cultivated sweet potato has bacterial DNA

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11 comments

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Returners
2.6 / 5 (7) Apr 29, 2015
The salt absorbed by the plant stays in the leaves, not in the flesh.


That's very interesting, because you could gather the above ground portion of the potato plant and dispose of it somewhere else, such as in the ocean, to remove all the excess salt from the land to potentially completely recover the land through what amounts to 100% natural nanotechnology of biology.

[b]The team, supported by Amsterdam University, uses neither genetically modified organisms nor laboratories in their quest for food that grows in salty environments.[/b]

So all they use here is natural selective breeding of crops.

Bravo. Real world experimentalism: Tinkering, rather than tampering with what God already made.
betterexists
1.2 / 5 (6) Apr 29, 2015
How to CONSERVE Water/Food? Catch ALL Useless Pets & DECIMATE THEM. A kind of Tinkering yes, but Biofuel Plants provide fuel for Autos & Industries! Tail Wagging of Pets are slower than speeding Autos, WoW!
Uncle Ira
3.8 / 5 (10) Apr 29, 2015
Bravo. Real world experimentalism: Tinkering, rather than tampering with what God already made.


If god did not want us to tamper and tinker, why he give us the brains and fingers to use to tamper around with? He should have made it tamper-proof if he wanted us to leave it alone.

What's the point of being a god if you all your stuff is subject to being tampered with? If I was a god, I would want to have enough god powers to be able make my really good creations off limits from the couyons who might try to mess em up with tampering.
Returners
1.2 / 5 (6) Apr 29, 2015
What's the point of being a god if you all your stuff is subject to being tampered with? If I was a god, I would want to have enough god powers to be able make my really good creations off limits from the couyons who might try to mess em up with tampering.


The God gave human beings dominion over creation, and they were supposed to take care of it.
Bongstar420
1 / 5 (4) Apr 29, 2015
DUH!

I had to add more words to get the post, but ya, DUH!
FainAvis
5 / 5 (6) Apr 29, 2015
I am conflicted. Returners has a good idea in taking the foliage and dumping it in the sea, then brings God into it. How can I possibly give Returners a mark?
RealScience
5 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2015
I am conflicted. Returners has a good idea in taking the foliage and dumping it in the sea, then brings God into it. How can I possibly give Returners a mark?


@FainAvis:
This is a science forum so I rated Returner's first comment on part of it that was relevant to science, and I ignored the non-science part of his comment because he wasn't obnoxious about it. Returner's initial suggestion was excellent and highly relevant to the article, so I thus gave that comment a very high mark.

In contrast, Returner's second comment had no science content, so I gave it a low mark.
Shakescene21
5 / 5 (1) May 01, 2015
Actually, the salt-rich foliage may not need to be dumped in the sea. Since most livestock require salt in their diet, this foilage might make a valuable feed supplement.
Valentiinro
not rated yet May 02, 2015
Actually, the salt-rich foliage may not need to be dumped in the sea. Since most livestock require salt in their diet, this foilage might make a valuable feed supplement.

Or maybe as an herb. Salty leaves mixed in with mashed potatoes sounds pretty good to me.

The desalination of land idea is pretty neat too though.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) May 04, 2015
Salty leaves mixed in with mashed potatoes sounds pretty good to me.

I'd pass. Stems and leaves of potatoes are poisonous.
(Led to a number of poisonings when the plant was first introduced as people were trying to eat the above-ground parts)
holoman
not rated yet May 04, 2015
Excellent, kartoffel of the future !

Who knows where this could lead, keep it up.

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