FAO Science and Innovation Forum Side Event Report | Salinity, a Complex Global Challenge with a need for an Integrated Approach

During a side event at the FAO Science and Innovation Forum 2022, it was emphasised once again that an integrated approach to water-soil-crop management is crucial and offers different solutions to the salinity challenge. In addition, the science-policy-practice collaboration is needed to assess the salinity levels and its causes, test innovative water and agriculture management, showcase good practices and business cases, and work on scaling up. The online event (Thursday, October 13, 2022) was organised by Wageningen Environmental Research and supported by the Dutch Saline Water and Food System Partnership.

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Inspirational cases and effective interface between policy, research and practice

Salinity levels are increasing in deltas and (semi) arid areas worldwide. Innovative solutions to mitigate and adapt to salinisation are needed to ensure food and nutrition security. Several of the presented cases showed the importance of data on salinity and interesting approaches to mitigate and adapt to salinisation. Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga (Wageningen University & Research) moderated the meeting.

Martijn van Staveren kicked off with presenting the Saline Water & Food System Partnership (SW&FS). The ambition of the SW&FS Partnership is to strengthen cooperation between the Dutch water and agro-food sectors to address the challenge of salinisation in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs). The main activities are sharing knowledge and innovations, informing policy and research agendas, exploring and developing new collaborations in LMICs. This partnership is facilitated by the Netherlands Food Partnership (NFP) and the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP) at the invitation of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. Visit the NFP and NWP websites for more information.

Prof. Shamin Mia and Isfatuzzaman Bhuyan (Patuakhali Science and Technology University) jointly presented ‘Salinity in the coastal areas of Bangladesh: occurrence, impacts, and management’. They elaborated about the extensive research carried out on the characteristics of coastal agriculture; the status of salinity (which varies greatly in space and time); the potential impact on crops and consequently on national food security; and options for management of salinity. They concluded that a comprehensive synthesis of the soil, climate and socio-economic data at a geospatial level may increase chances of adoptability of management practices.

Arjen de Vos (The Salt Doctors) shared numerous experiences that focussed on ‘Creating opportunities for salt-affected farmland’. The key focus of the company is on salinity assessment and mapping of opportunities; research; training (of trainers)/capacity building; and the development, demonstration and implementation of scalable solutions. One of the most overlooked opportunities for dealing with salinity are moderately tolerant crops. From all the land that is salt affected, the majority is measured at only slightly to moderately saline. However saline agriculture includes much more than ‘just’ growing tolerant crops: saline agriculture requires integration of crop, soil, and water management. Arjen also showed what steps are needed to move from a pilot to large scale implementation of saline agriculture and impact, which requires strategic planning and sufficient resources.

Judit Snethlage (Wageningen University & Research) presented her views on and experience with the science-policy interface: ‘Saline Agriculture & Research; Complex challenges need integrative approaches’. She stated that good research is needed to identify successful pathways and trade-offs and that can interact with policy. To identify all cost-benefits of possible scenarios, an integrated approach is needed. Therefore effects on water security, water quality and biodiversity, in addition to soil and crop health and food security, should be included together with the influence of climate change. Cases in Bangladesh and Vietnam show the relevance of knowledge input for decision making and the contribution to transition pathways for resilient and sustainable food systems in deltas.

Experiences and innovations which support smallholders to deal with salinity

During the discussion, the participants shared what in their experience are (new) needs in the field of salinity:

  • More accurate and practically usable salinity data and maps, crop salt tolerance data, information on and understanding of cases, forecasting of salinity. Creating and connecting databases for worldwide salinity issues, in order to implement context-based solutions
  • Further development and solution sharing: breeding for salt tolerant crops or introduction of commercial usable food halophytes, business models for farmers who apply integrated soil management solutions. A global network of saline demonstration farms and/or innovation hubs where best practices for local conditions are developed and showcased (a start for large scale implementation).
  • Integration even beyond the water-soil-crop nexus: taking into account other crop limiting factors and more focus on socio-economic consequences.
  • Capacity building at all levels: education for farmers on new practices and a community approach.
  • The challenge of scaling: How to link local salinity conditions and solutions to regional policy plans and interventions in the water and agro-food system. Scaling-up current and new desalination technologies will cut down costs, increase easiness of applicability and service systems.

Kate Negacz, vice chair of the International Network of Salt-Affected Soils, concluded the meeting by sharing her three key messages. (1) The importance of partnerships. The new Dutch initiative to share knowledge and experience will collaborate with the extensive global partnerships of (WASAG (soil), INSAS (salinity), GASCA (plant/agri) which already serve hundreds of practitioners working on salinity maps, databases, guidelines for good practice and sharing. (2) The need for a multi-stakeholder approach and the focus on the local context. (3) Building bridges between different levels, raising awareness, and incorporating different aspects to involve farmers as well as e.g. impact investors.

In summary: work together – think globally, act locally. Kate expressed the hope that salinity will be on the agenda at COP27 and UN Water 2023.