Salt water in agriculture – an innovative approach to crop irrigation

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Could salt water irrigation be a solution for farmers struggling with fresh water shortages? Scientists believe that saltwater used in sustainable plant cultivation is as possible.

Scientists will study saltwater irrigation

Clemson University has received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to research the development of a Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) platform for growing salt-tolerant crops (cucumbers, tomatoes and mustards) using salt water. The project is expected to help develop more sustainable food production methods, which is particularly important in regions with dry climates and lack of access to fresh water.

The survey will be conducted in vegetable growing areas in South Carolina, Florida and Arizona. The research project will last 5 years and will include the development of a hydroponic CEA platform, the use of salt water for irrigation, salinity management to better accommodate crop responses as crops become accustomed to high salinity, and the selection of mustard, cucumber and tomato varieties with increased salt tolerance. The grant is part of a $70 million USDA investment to establish resilient and climate-friendly food and agricultural systems.

Innovative irrigation methods

The work will be carried out using state-of-the-art technology and tools for soil analysis and plant irrigation. This research is not only important for agricultural producers struggling with increasing salt content in the soil – it also has great potential to help countries affected by drought and climate change achieve food self-sufficiency. The goal is to design a hydroponic CEA platform for growing salt-tolerant food crops using salt water for irrigation, while ensuring that salinity does not affect the environment.

“In many regions where fresh water is scarce, saltwater sources such as brackish groundwater are available and can be used for irrigation. However, increased soil and land salinity limits the use of these water sources in traditional open-field farming, a problem that can be reduced by using hydroponic (soilless) farming in CEA. Several valuable food plants are salt-sensitive, but their tolerance can be increased through proper breeding,” said the project’s director, Professor. Raghupathy Karthikeyan.

Salt water and crops

Irrigating plants with salt water is not recommended for most crops, but there are species that tolerate salted substrate very well. One such species is root crops such as carrots, beets and celery. These vegetables have a root system adapted to life in salted soils, which allows them to take up needed minerals despite the presence of a lot of salt. In addition, experiments have shown that using salt water as a fertilizer can affect the growth and taste of these vegetables.

However, with other crops, care should be taken and the use of too much salt water should be avoided. Excess salt can cause damage to roots and leaves, leading to reduced yields or plant growth disorders. For delicate species such as flowers, it is necessary to use only potable or rainwater for irrigation. Therefore, before using salt water, it is necessary to carefully study its chemical composition and adjust its proportions to the requirements of a particular plant.

Alternative irrigation

Irrigating plants with salt water is an alternative method that is gaining in popularity. Why? Well, salt water has properties against various diseases and pests. What’s more, soil salinity weakens the competitiveness of undesirable plants, so the beneficial ones have better conditions for growth. However, it is worth bearing in mind that excessively saline soil can cause problems with water absorption by the roots and lead to soil depletion.

“We believe that by using desalination techniques suitable for the agricultural sector, combined with effective management of water, nutrients and fertilizers, as well as salinity, we can grow salt-tolerant crops in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable,” said Gary Amy, dean of Clemson University’s School of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences. “We advocate partial desalination technologies to produce irrigation water of a quality that matches the salt tolerance of the target crop,” he added.

The results of the research are expected to help improve the efficiency of the irrigation process and reduce the environmental impact of salt. The project is important because many areas of the world are facing a growing lack of access to clean drinking water. Research that uses salt water for irrigation purposes can help solve this problem while increasing the efficiency of food cultivation.

Read more about salt water in the article:“When fresh water is salty, or the answer to a not stupid question“.

Source: accessed 09.05.2023 accessed 09.05.2023

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