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Bring on the Brine
The Extraordinary Promise of Saltwater Agriculture

Freshwater is terribly scarce (less than 3 percent of the earth’s water), and yet we are wholly reliant on it. But fear not! Or perhaps, fear less! Though salt and plant life don’t usually make a great pair, there is a variety of plants saltwater doesn’t kill. They’re called halophytes, and they could be a game-changer. Mark Anderson writes of the many uses of these saltwater plants for Aeon:

The absorbency of [seashore mallow’s] inner stem makes it attractive for animal bedding, while the outer bark has been developed into a thread for cloth. The seed, as noted, is a promising stock for ethanol and biodiesel. And the seedmeal offers a spread of amino acids that make it attractive as animal feed. Roots, spent flowers and the biopolymers in the plant are also being investigated for everything from gums to industrial chemicals. […]

[Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center] predicts that by developing saline agriculture on waste ground, we could get our water issues under control within ‘15 to 20 years’, freeing up as much as 70 per cent of the water that we’re using now for conventional farming. ‘The beauty of halophytes,’ says Bushnell, ‘is you can do it wherever you have wastelands and some saline water. We have a surfeit of that.’

We’ll refrain from predicting just when you can expect to fill up your tank with halophyte-sourced biofuel (though given the havoc the current generation of crop-based biofuels is wreaking, we hope it’s soon), but this is an idea with plenty of potential. More than that, it’s an example of what we humans do best: innovate and adapt. Malthusians too often look at graphs of population growth and resource consumption and conclude that humanity is doomed. But those doomsayers conveniently forget that the pace of technological progress is at the very least keeping up with our growing resource demands.

With the development of halophytes, desalination, GMOs, we’re a lot better positioned to handle the coming environmental challenges—daunting as they are—than many greens would have you believe.

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