The Potato That Could Feed the World

As millions of acres of farmland are lost to salt contamination, a Dutch farmer figures out how to grow crops in saline water.

(Photo: Courtesy SaltFarmTexel)

Nov 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

On a sandy windswept island off Holland’s north coast that has twice as many sheep as people, organic farmer Marc van Rijsselberghe is performing a promising act of agricultural alchemy—growing fields of potatoes, carrots, and cabbages in diluted saltwater.

Last month his project, SaltFarmTexel, beat out more than 500 other competitors in USAID's "Securing Water for Food" challenge. His winning entry? A potato that can thrive on equal parts salt and fresh water.

“For us it’s a complete breakthrough," said Rijsselberghe. “It’s more or less if you go outside and you put water in your car and say some magic words and you drive 200,000 kilometers. People would say, ‘He’s a lunatic.’ ”

Salt poisoning of agricultural land costs the global economy $27 billion annually, and every day nearly 5,000 more acres of farmland are lost to salt contamination, according to a recent United Nations study. Along with climate change and rising sea levels, salinity will become an increasing challenge to feeding a population expected to top 9 billion by 2050.

“The water crisis in the developing world affects 1.75 billion people who face physical or economic water scarcity issues,” said Ku McMahan, director of the "Securing Water for Food" challenge. “The purpose of our program is to either take the water that is already there and make it last longer or find innovative ways to store it or reuse it.”

“There are areas in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where, because of overuse of the groundwater, there are salinity problems, so this has potential to help not just coastal regions but also other regions affected by salinity,” he added.

Rijsselberghe has tinkered with salt-tolerant crops for year, starting with a failed experiment to grow a salt marsh plant called the sea aster on 10 acres that were decimated by ducks. Eight years ago he teamed up with scientists at the Free University of Amsterdam to figure out which crops could be grown at scale with the saltiest water.

“I put in thousands of plants and test with different varieties of saltwater, and we see which one dies and which one lives,” he said. “I simply let the plants tell me which one is salt-tolerant, and I’m only interested in the champions. It’s survival of the fittest.”

In the past year he has tested 160 types of plants, with 70 percent dying after a few weeks.

Under a partnership with MetaMeta, a Dutch international development consortium, four types of Rijsselberghe's champion potato have already been shipped to Pakistan to see if they can thrive under similar salinity conditions in a different climate.

“Doing this high-impact research work without really being part of the regular academic world, I think it’s quite pioneering,” said Frank Van Steenbergen, director of MetaMeta. “We’re testing existing varieties, not going through a complicated breeding program or genetic modification. This is pushing the boundaries for agriculture in areas that have saline groundwater.”

From Texas to China, salt-contaminated soil is a pressing concern. “We estimate there is 300 million hectares of salt-damaged land globally where this potato can grow,” said Rijsselberghe. “We don’t look at it as the best potato with the highest yield. We look at it as a source of nutrients for people who are otherwise starving.”

Rijsselberghe says since the USAID award, SaltFarmTexel has fielded inquiries about partnerships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The way he sees it, there are 1.5 billion hectares of salt-damaged land all over the world where different types of crops could be grown.

“We have to learn to play again with the sea because that’s where fertility comes from,” he said. “If we use the sea properly, we could harvest more than enough to feed the world.”