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

By Maude Brulard ,AFP

DEN HOORN, 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 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.��