BERKELEY, California — A report published in the UN Natural Resources Forum Journal has found alarming news regarding salt and its effect on farmland.
Each day, approximately 2,000 hectares of fertile land is lost to salt-induced degradation, increasing the total loss of land to 62 million hectares from 45 million 20 years ago.
Rainfalls along with sufficient drainage systems are generally enough to prevent significant salt accumulation in the soil. However, with shifting weather patterns due to climate change in areas without efficient drainage systems, the salt has begun to build up over soil around the world.
The degradation is particularly acute in areas with poor irrigation, little rainfall and no natural drainage. Soil typically has from zero to 175 milligrams of salt per liter. When that level exceeds 3,500 milligrams per liter, almost nothing can grow, including major crops such as corns, beans, rice and cotton.
Although it will require an extensive undertaking of planting trees, dramatically improving drainage systems, planting salt-tolerant crops and more, it will be less costly than the alternative.
The consequences of inaction extend beyond the immediate scope of farmers to the recipients of those agricultural products, a chain that extends to almost everyone. The estimated global cost of inaction is roughly $27.3 billion.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has predicted that producers will need to increase their production levels by 70 percent to feed the growing population by 2050. With that in mind, the salinity of soil becomes a much more serious problem.
Seventy-five countries around the world are already feelings the effects on their crop yields, including key areas such as the Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia, the Indo-Gangetic Basin in India and the Yellow River Basin in China.
India faces threats to wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton production, crops vital for prosperity of the country. In the U.S., specifically the Colorado River Basin, the issue could cost the country up to $750 million every year.
While the seriousness of soil degradation is unambiguous, the damage can be stopped, even reversed in the majority of the cases. If enough irrigation water is used, instead of being the cause of the spreading problem, it can push the salt below the roots of the plants and with an effective drainage system, can prevent damage to production.
However, then the question remains: who will pay for the needed changes? The report argues it should be the private sector, specifically the paper, packaging, clothing and travel industries, the businesses that are most directly affected by the salt damage.
Solutions already exist, they just need to be implemented. Dutch farmer, Marc van Rijsselberghe, has developed potatoes that can grow with salt water and reduce the pressure of salt poisoning. Having already harvested 50 tons this year, he believes his product can be grown on 300 million hectares all over the world.
With little being done and little global pressure, the priority of salt degradation is increasing exponentially and threatens to critically alter global food production and the lives of people all around the world, starting with those already in poverty.
– William Ying
Sources: McMaster University, BBC, NPR, The Weather Channel