Cultivating bounty of the sea

Saltwater: Researcher's project offers hope for coastal plains drained by deforestation and desert - and for world's hungry.

March 31, 2001|By Kurt Shillinger | Kurt Shillinger,BOSTON GLOBE

MASSAWA, Eritrea - Imagine a farm where water is never in short supply and each crop leaves the soil more fertile. Now imagine that farm offering a solution to the most vexing environmental issues of our times: global warming, declining water tables, loss of arable land, collapsing fisheries, and shrinking biodiversity. Finally, imagine that farm making money - real wealth, not just enough to pay the bills.

After more than 30 years of research, Carl Hodges, an atmospheric physicist from the University of Arizona, no longer imagines such a farm. He has built one, and his secret might sound surprising: irrigating with salt water.

Seawater Farms, a joint venture with the government of Eritrea on the Red Sea, is the first commercial-sized saltwater farm in the world. The project is still being constructed, but Hodges expects it to produce $10 million in shrimp, fish, and products from an edible succulent called salicornia in its first harvests this year.

By 2005, he and Eritrean fisheries officials estimate, the returns will increase tenfold.

For decades, salt water agriculture has been a prospect as tantalizing as it is forbidding. The world's supply of salt water is virtually unlimited, but salt stifles conventional crops and spoils topsoil.

At Seawater, not only is Hodges tapping this resource at almost no expense, but he's also trying to challenge the assumption that human activity inevitably makes the environment worse. The farm's production value will become clearer over time, but one result is evident. A coastal plain made barren by deforestation and desertification is springing to life with vital economic activity, new mangrove wetlands, and nearly 150 bird species.

"Environmentalists always talk about sustainability, but that only means things don't get worse," says Hodges, standing on a sandy berm above a field of tender green shoots. "But things are getting worse. Sustainability is not adequate. It is important to get the planet on a pathway to environmental enhancement."

In 1967, Hodges, then 30, looked ahead and started to worry about how the world could feed a rapidly growing population. Just 3 percent of all water is fresh, and only half of that is attainable. He established the Environmental Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona that year and began looking for solutions. Desalination, he soon realized, might never be economically viable. That conclusion set him thinking in a new direction: Why not see what grows in saltwater?

A practical answer to that question, some scientists have suggested, would mark a great step forward in human welfare. "The single most important biological contributions to world peace will be to produce plants which grow effectively in quite salty water," the British mathematician Jacob Bronowski argued nearly half a century ago.

Hodges agreed. The world has 25,000 miles of desert coast. "If we could develop the coasts," he reasons, "we could feed billions."

Over the next 30 years, he ventured into shrimp farming in Mexico and Saudi Arabia. He also studied more than 1,000 salt-tolerant plants both for their economic properties and environmental impact. His search ended with salicornia, a speared, woody-stemmed halophyte.

"It is a phenomenal thing," says Hodges. "It germinates in sea water, grows in seawater, takes nutrients out of sea water, captures carbon from the air very efficiently, and gives us oxygen."

Nicknamed "sea asparagus," salicornia has crunchy tips that European restaurants put in salads or alongside fish. Hodges and his colleagues have also developed salsas and relishes with the salty succulent. Most of the plant's potential value, however, comes from its seeds and stem. Each plant produces thousands of seeds that can be ground into high-protein meal or pressed into cooking oil. At Seawater, the fibrous stalks are used for livestock fodder, and will soon be made into fire bricks and building materials. Hodges projects that his salicornia fields could ultimately produce as much money as the shrimp and fish.

"This has a long horizon," says Christer Salen, a Swedish venture capitalist who has followed, and at times funded, Hodges' work since 1984. (He has no financial connection to the farm.) "The world's edible oil market is tremendous, and salicornia produces a premium quality oil. But no one really knows about it yet."

Seawater Farms is slated to cover more than 10,000 acres. Currently half that size, it unfolds like a kind of environmental connect-the-dots. It starts with a deep channel cut inward from the beach, allowing the Red Sea to flow into a manmade river 3 miles long. At the first stage of the farm, water is diverted - either directly or through sand filters - into large circular tanks teeming with millions of shrimp.

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