Saline succour

GROWING crops in coastal areas has been a difficult task because of the high salt content of the soil. Now, scientists in USA and Saudi Arabia recommend a plant species called Salicornia that thrives in saline and even semi-arid conditions. The researchers are crossing Salicornia species to develop varieties that can yield food for humans and animals and provide by-products for industrial use.

Scientists at the Environmental Research Laboratory (ERL) of the University of Arizona, USA,.Who have developed 2 new breeds of Salicornia over a decade of research, claim that the species are now being commercially cultivated, especially in Saudi Arabia's Gulf coast, for supplying food for humans and animals (Ceres 152, Vol 27, No 2 ).

Says Ali Al Jaloud, of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology University in Riyadh, "The programme (of applying ERL research on Salicornia in the field in Saudi Arabia) emphasises traditional management practices in site selection, planting periods, seeding rates and irrigation methods, leeching soils and other agronomic factors unique to Salicornia." The plant adapts best to sandy loam soils with adequate drainage.

Arab countries are particularly interested in this new commercial crop, which can yield fodder as well as high quality oil similar to soyabean and safflower. Besides, the species has beneficial byproducts for rural communities and industry, and is attracting investors.

One of the 1,licomi, varieties developed by ERL scientists - called sos- 10 (Salicornia oilseed variety that is in the 10th year of its research programme) - has a biomass output of 25 tonnes (dry weight) per ha compared to 15 tonnes by the old species. The seed yield averages 10- 12 per cent of the total biomass and the variety has been planted in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt and Mexico.

Salicornia seed contains 30 per cent oil, which could be improved for use as edible oil. According to studies done by Archer Daniels Midland Co in conjunction with the University of Arizona, after oil extraction 65 per cent of biomass is left as cake that contains 42 per cent protein and can be used as livestock feed.

Salicornia could also be substituted for fuelwood. After seeds are removed from the plant by threshing, the residual straw could be used as cooking fuel. However, its high salt content poses some problem in these 2 applications, and efforts are on to get over this hurdle.