On a barren, sandy coast in Arabia parched plants are desperate for water--yet farmers pray it will not rain.
Instead they nourish in seawater a unique plant called SOS-7 which scientists hope will relieve famine in parts of the world where fresh water is scarce.
“We are the only farmers who are not happy to see rain,” said James Riley, a University of Arizona scientist.
“SOS-7 could be ideal for places in Africa, for example, where water could be pumped from the sea or where the water inland is brackish.
Next Wave of Revolution
“We see this as the next wave of the Green Revolution,” he said, referring to huge yields of improved wheat and other crops achieved in the 1960s. “The benefits could be just as big.”
Riley, now based in Kuwait, has headed a 4-year-old project at Kalba on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates to develop SOS-7, a green crop adapted from seaweed-like plants that live naturally along coastlines in the Americas.
Fresh water harms SOS-7, and a cloudburst early this year probably reduced the crop harvested in July--35 tons from 31 acres.
Humans can’t eat SOS-7 but its seeds produce vegetable oil and the rest of the plant can be used as cattle or poultry feed or turned into dark brown straw.
Riley said a project similar to Kalba was under way in Mexico and others would be set up in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“We hope to increase the yield to make SOS-7 commercially viable on a big scale, which is already happening in Mexico.”
Early Harvest Seen
He added that farmers hoped to shorten the time from planting to harvesting to six months from seven.
Scientists are also experimenting with other kinds of salt-loving plants, Riley said.
The Kalba farm, funded by the emirate of Sharjah, plans to fatten its own sheep on SOS-7 to try to persuade other sheep farmers in the Emirates of the benefits of the new crop.
Riley said SOS-7 growing could be combined efficiently with saltwater fish-farming. Waste water from the fish farm would be used to irrigate the crop.
He said the seed oil was of higher quality than soybean oil and the Mexican farm was already selling it at similar prices.
SOS-7--its full name is Salicornia oil seed selection number seven--can be grown using cheap and simple farming techniques, Riley said.
“Poor farmers in Third World countries could quickly learn to grow it,” he added.
Grows in Sandy Soil
It grows well in sandy soil and the main preparation for planting is to flood the fields with salt water.
“Seawater has most of the nutrients the crop needs,” said Riley though he added that it needed some nitrogen fertilizer.
But SOS-7 is no miracle crop. Problems with disease and insects might emerge and the plant grows well only in hot climates, Riley said.
Draining fields could also be a problem as large amounts of seawater are needed to wash away deposits of salt accumulating around plant roots.
Seawater Less Salty
And it is so salty that it has to be mixed with other food or washed before being fed to animals. Seawater, which is less salty than the plant itself, can be used for that too.
Yet SOS-7 and similar plants could transform agriculture within a few years, not only in poor countries but in rich ones with scarce fresh water, Riley said.
This could be a boon for Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where reserves of natural underground water are dwindling fast.
“You can’t find SOS-7 quoted on the commodities exchange in Chicago,” said Riley. “But maybe one day soon.”