Saline water and food systems: we should have brought the carrots!

For the first time in its existence, the Amsterdam International Water Week included a combined track specifically focussed on both Water and Agriculture. This included an in-person session on Wednesday 3 November, in which opportunities and challenges of saline water and food systems were approached from the perspectives of scientific research and project implementation.

Podium discussion with moderator Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga, keynote speaker Kate Negacz, and presenters Judit Snethlage and Arjen de Vos (5).png

What were the main messages from this session? Well… we should have brought the carrots, which appear to be more tasteful when grown in saline conditions! This statement captures a number of messages which include: it is becoming increasingly possible, in a technical sense, to successfully use saline tolerant crops; that saline agriculture yields are reaching marketable scales; and that consumers are becoming interested in tasting and considering saline vegetables for consumption. Positive developments indeed. As an example, reference was made to a pilot study on the island of Terschelling, where saline produce offers new tastes and innovative combinations with existing restaurant menus. In addition, the session conveyed several other interesting messages.

Responding to the salinity challenge

Salinisation threatens food security, biodiversity, and livelihoods, and many fundamental challenges remain, as outlined in this background paper, which was presented during the session. Salinity is a complex issue felt on a global scale: from saline soils to brackish water conditions along coasts, and salinity intrusion through tides and groundwater. This calls for locally specific responses. Furthermore, it is important to connect regional approaches with farm level based interventions and vice versa. To address these issues, we need to pay attention to a number of essential factors:

  • Research (ranging from salinity assessments to testing technological innovations);
  • Agriculture and water management innovations (to adapt, mitigate or prevent further salinisation depending on physical conditions and costs);
  • Markets (to sell products produced in salt-affected areas);
  • Policies (to enable or further support saline agriculture);
  • Investment (to finance the scaling up of opportunities).

There is a sufficient amount of awareness on salinity, with a number of known examples of good practises and pilots, but scaling is needed for which collaboration of companies, NGOs, policy and research is conditional.

Scientific message: a systems approach

Integrated approaches are needed to deal with the complex challenges associated with salinisation. A food systems approach can be used, for instance, to identify trade-offs between the effectiveness of solutions and hence support decision-making at a regional or farm level. Would it be more efficient to grow improved varieties of a current crop, change to different crops, or even switch to different production systems? Integrated or systems approaches may help to understand and balance out such decisions.

Podium discussion with moderator Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga, keynote speaker Kate Negacz, and presenters Judit Snethlage and Arjen de Vos (3).png

Project implementation message: the farmers’ perspective

It is important to understand the farmers’ perspectives on salinity and saline agriculture. Not many farmers have the resources or capacity to invest in major changes. Modifying water management and agricultural systems is expensive. Furthermore, changing crops would require new production methods, processing techniques and new market networks. This calls for either large-scale collective approaches investments, or local minor adjustments such as growing salt-tolerant varieties of the same crop instead of a full switch to another crop. Saline agriculture is more sensitive to environmental changes, compared to freshwater based agriculture. At the same time, project implementation results show huge increases in yields, as well as the contribution towards achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Closing remarks and follow-up

There are already several ongoing projects tackling salinisation from different angles. But there is a need to bring these projects and people together for a more integrated take to the challenges associated with salinisation and most importantly, the opportunities that arise from these challenges.

NWP and NFP together with other key actors from the water and food sectors, are to this end exploring how a platform or partnership between various organisations could intensify cross-sectoral collaboration, stimulate (inter)national knowledge exchange, and initiate (research) projects.

For more information or contact: Martijn van Staveren (Netherlands Water Partnership) or Frans Verberne (Netherlands Food Partnership)

A PDF with all presentations of this session can be found here.