Saline lands – Salt Farm Texel

Publication April 2018

Saline lands Salt Farm Texel

Interview with Adriaan Verbeek, managing director and Arjen de Vos, director of R&D of Salt Farm Texel

With the world population expected to reach nine billion before 2050, agricultural production has to increase by 70 percent. At the same time, less fresh water will become available for agriculture so the challenge is to produce more food with less water. While everybody is focussing on fresh water for agricultural production, Salt Farm Texel has a different perspective. Worldwide about one billion hectares of land is salt affected and this number increases by three hectares every minute. In addition, the amount of brackish water is equal to the amount of fresh water. Up until now, these saline resources of the world have not been recognized as a way to increase agricultural production.

Now, Salt Farm Texel is demonstrating the possible ways these resources can be useful by means of cultivating salt tolerant crops. Salt Farm Texel specializes in evaluating the salt tolerance of conventional crops, performing large-scale screening of possible salt tolerant cultivars, and developing saline agricultural practices. They work together with NGOs, investors, breeders and farmers across the world.

In an interview with Adriaan Verbeek and Arjen de Vos, we explore what makes Salt Farm Texel so unique in combatting the issues surrounding salinization, i.e. the decrease in fresh water available for agriculture and the increase in saline affected soil – particularly in dry areas around the globe.

What causes salinization?

Salinization can occur naturally or arise through mismanagement in irrigation. It exists around coastal areas or where the sea has retreated over a period of time, leaving salt affected soil. Dry regions are impacted the most as there is less water available to flush the soil causing salt build up. Soil salinization can also occur naturally when the ground water level rises, caused by changes in vegetation (e.g. the clearing of deeper rooted vegetation). The ground water – which is already salt affected – will come to the surface and affect the soil in the area.

Another cause of salinization is mismanagement in irrigation. When farmers start irrigating land with salt water the soil becomes increasingly damaged over time. This can be prevented, or slowed down, by flushing the soil with additional water. Often, however, water is already scarce in the area and as a result the soil will not be adequately flushed.

We have found the areas which are the most affected are Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan and parts of Africa due to their climate.

How did Salt Farm Texel start?

Mark van Rijsselberghe founded the company: however, it was not until 2006 that matters really progressed when Arjen de Vos joined as a full time member of the team. Arjen first got involved in 2005 when he started his PhD on the topic of saline agriculture for the VU University in Amsterdam and after finishing his project stayed with Salt Farm Texel. We started to put our research into practice with Robin Konijn leading as CFO,who is also a co‑shareholder with Mark.

What makes Salt Farm Texel so unique?

Governments and NGOs primarily focus on how to turn salt water into fresh water. That will not, however, be enough to deal with this ever growing threat as so much fresh water has already turned into salt water and the process cannot be reversed. Salt Farm Texel is taking on this challenge from a different angle; rather than trying to put a hold to the salinization or reverse it, it looks at ways to grow vegetables using saline water and soil.

Using saline resources is a much more effective way to deal with this issue as there is simply not enough fresh water and what is there, is being lost at a rapid rate. We need to find ways to use saline resources and become less dependent on fresh water.

There are other institutions that are looking at similar solutions to us, but these tend to be more scientifically focused. We focus on practical solutions instead. It is great to see crops growing on soil that was previously unused or could only be used during the rainy season. We work together with local farmers who can pass on the knowledge.

How do you operate?

In Texel we have our open air lab. Here we can test over 50 crops and 800 varieties thereof for salt tolerance and have done so over the last few years. The lab is a highly controlled environment and we can recreate local field conditions and apply the results directly to the relevant fields.

When we initially start a project we visit the area, collect the data and measure the levels and types of salinization. We have been working on projects in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ghana.

In the past we have relied on data provided to use through other sources but discovered that often the data is not reliable or does not have the level of detail needed. Precise testing is required to achieve reliable and therefore usable data. After data collection and having measured levels and types of salinization, we return to Texel for testing. We perform large scale screening to identify the most tolerant varieties of (for instance) cabbage. We screen about 100 different varieties to identify the ten most tolerant. Of these ten varieties we determine the exact level of salt tolerance, using levels of salinization that exist in the affected area. On the test field we measure the salt tolerance of the crop and their yield. We use these results as a reference for the crop performance on other locations to determine the yield potential in order to identify any potential yield gap. Certain crops are more tolerant than others, for example lettuce is more tolerant than strawberry. A crop often used in farming which is relatively salt tolerant is beets. We not only test the different types of crop but also experiment with fertilization and other variables.

How do you re-create the affected area of e.g. Ghana, on Texel in the Netherlands? Are weather conditions affecting the experiment?

You may think that because it rains much more in the Netherlands than in Ghana the tests are distorted but the rain is nowhere near enough to dilute the irrigation water. For the test we irrigate a lot with saline water.

We also apply floating farming. This is a closed system of floating panels, with no evaporation. This method can be implemented in the various different types of circumstances, from saline clay to desert. This method is not suitable for all crops but can, for example, be applied to lettuce. Floating farming is not only good for testing but is a very efficient way of farming, requiring almost 75 percent less fertilization than traditional farming and it is the most water efficient way of growing crops.

We have developed growth models that we try to standardize to ensure we apply reliable methods in practice.

How do you get the farmers to give up their usual ways of farming?

We usually contact the farmers through NGOs, but often the NGOs approach us for help and together we prepare a project plan.

Farmers in an affected area have usually farmed in a certain way for generations. Due to salinization, however, the yield has diminished and farmers will no longer farm during the dry season as they believe it is simply not possible. We have asked them to try different crops and use different methods but often it requires a lead farmer who is open to a new challenge to start the trend. Only when that farmer succeeds will others then follow the example.

We do not only come into the area to test and find the appropriate crop, we train the farmers so that over time they can continue farming without our involvement or assistance and can train other farmers in the area.

You work with NGOs and the farmers locally. Are there any other parties you work with?

Yes, we have started to work with the breeders, however they are not currently focused on the issue of salinization as it has not been brought to their attention. Potato breeders, in particular, have started to work on potato varieties that have an increased salt tolerance.

What is your view on knowledge sharing?

Salt Farm Texel consists of two entities. We have Salt Farm Texel B.V., a commercial organization and a Foundation which operates on an open source basis, sharing its knowledge publicly. The Foundation is funded through subsidiaries and donations.

What is your goal?

Our goal is to help the smallholder farmers who need our help the most. These farmers have to grow their crops on salt affected soil and can no longer produce enough food to feed their families. The threat of migration is imminent. By helping these farmers grow different varieties of crop we aim to prevent migration and other associated problems. We see ourselves as a social impact company.

According to the FAO about 80 percent of the farmers are jointly responsible for about 30–40 percent of the total production of crops. Our methods will not only help tackle the salinization problem but also generally improve the yield of the crop in those areas.

Do you feel you can make a difference whilst only helping small scale farmers?

As a social impact company, helping only smallholder farmers is part of our philosophy. There is of course only so much we can do. The way we operate requires a lot of attention and time from our people “on the ground”. This sets our limits in terms of the scale of our operations. We train the farmers locally to take over our role once we have completed our initial work but as we have already been in the area for several months we usually go back to offer support. Technology does help us to monitor from a distance.

We believe the awareness of issues surrounding salinization is slowly changing including the approach to solving it. Many NGOs, governments and commercial parties globally are starting to focus on searching for saline tolerant crops rather than trying to only bring a stop to the salinization of soil and water.

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