Today’s Solutions: December 01, 2023

You may already know that the world wastes an overwhelming amount of food, with more than a third of the food produced being thrown away. But our global food system is currently also plagued by another urgent problem.

Over the past four decades, the world has lost up to one-third of the amount of land capable of growing nutrient-rich crops, and arable land is only expected to shrink even further due to the effects of climate change.

Now, an emerging group of startups and researchers are convinced that answers to the impending food crisis may not lie on land at all – instead, they’re looking to the ocean and to feed future populations with crops grown on floating farms and fed by seawater.

As sea levels rise, salt levels are creeping up in the rivers and underground aquifers that irrigate fields, thus interfering with nutrient uptake and damaging tissue. Once it reaches farmlands, salt requires significant resources to remove from soil — the most common methods involve large amounts of fresh water, which is already scarce.

This has sent researchers on a long-running race to find staple crops that can grow despite constantly increasing salinity. One of the frontrunners that have managed to make real progress in this quest is Canadian startup Agrisea.

The company is currently zeroing in on developing gene-edited salt-tolerant crops with the goal of soon growing them on floating farms in sea-flooded plains or anchored directly in the ocean.

Agrisea’s proposed method involves first isolating stem cells from crops like rice, then using CRISPR gene-editing technology to insert a DNA sequence that would eventually allow the plant to tolerate high levels of seawater.

Thus far, the startup’s founders are working to grow rice plants in water one-third the salinity of seawater and plan to have small farms floating off the shores of Kenya and Grand Bahama Island by the end of the year.

Agrisea pushes crops out in the ocean, but Scotland-based company, Seawater Solution, takes a different approach. The company takes degraded coastal farmland, seeds it with naturally salt-tolerant herbs, then floods the area by removing seawalls or pumping in water from the ocean to create an artificial salt marsh.

In this new wetland ecosystem, crops grow without fertilizers, pesticides, or freshwater. They also hold soil in place, preventing erosion, and feed on nitrates and carbon, both of which over-accumulate in waters near human populations due to factors like agricultural runoff and CO2 emissions.

We wrote an Optimist Daily View about the potential for halophytes, salt-loving crops, to feed our growing population. We are excited to see more companies coming on board with this innovative solution for food security.

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