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Food security and the use of degraded Saline lands

Shannen Santos

Word Count: 1932 (excluding Abstract and Literature Cited)


The exponential increase of the world population has put worldwide food security to a new low. With the careless use of land in nations across the globe, we are now facing a shortage of land masses to cultivate our agriculture. In turn, this has caused restoration science to turn to degraded lands that have been left abandoned all around the world. Globally, countries are now trying to remediate these lands to meet with the yearly quota for food security by using certain procedures such as cultivating halophytes and investing to research alternative methods. The associated costs that comes with the effort are taken into consideration but research showed that the cost of simply ignoring these lands is much higher in the long run than investing in sustainable agricultural practices.


With the human population exponentially growing every year, the consequences towards our environment also increases. As of 2015, the human population has reached 7.3 million worldwide (United Nations 2015). Along with the yearly increase of the population, the demand for essentials such as housing and food increases with it. In previous years, nations have used land without consideration of future consequences to the environment, including this is the masses of degraded land left unused worldwide.. To overcome the food security issue, industrial agriculture opted for techniques that deliver high economic return however, gave back negative impacts environmentally. During World War II, mono culturing techniques for crops and animals were praised as being a technological miracle that would make the ever rocketing human population self-sustainable (Union of Concerned Scientists 2016) however, as a society we are beginning to see that this industrial agriculture business is slowly leading to a dead end with consequences such as species extinction, contaminated ground water and, more importantly, salt-affected lands.

Restoration science becoming a stronger and more popular movement as we see worsening worldwide trends in the destruction of habitats and realisation the impending need to restore these degraded lands for reasons such as conserving the biodiversity (Florens & Baider 2013) and providing more space for food security for the population. There have been advances that are being used today such as the use of halophytes as a cost-effective option to lessen soil salinity levels naturally, as well as further developments including the use implementation of genetically modified crops. All of these processes are taken with consideration of the severity of degraded lands and related costs.

Our Land Today

It is common knowledge that land is vital to the survival of any species. Despite any

Figure 1: Types of salt-affected soils (Qadir et al. 2014) technological advances we may have on other fields of science, the predestined decline of vegetable agriculture and weakening food security will limit the populations progress greatly (Salil n.d.). Our essential needs either comes from land or has to cycle through it at one point. As soon as vegetation is affected through logging, farming or any other human activity, rates of soil erosion (Primack 2012) and chemical imbalances increase rapidly and greatly reduces the value of the land for other activities.

The lack of new productive land has kickstarted the productivity enhancement of degraded lands back on the board of politics (Drechsel et al. 2014). There is approximately 20% of agricultural land as well as 50% of cropland worldwide that is affected with salinity as estimated by the United Nations Environment Programme (Flowers & Yeo as cited in Chellappan et al. 2007). Most of these salt-affected soils are owned by smallholder farmers which, due to their low income, result in using low level supplements with off farm activities (Qadir et al. 2014) which may show immediate resolution but cause long term damage. In view of the need to provide more to meet demands with food to a continually expanding population, these affected lands become a valuable resource that is difficult to neglect or even abandon albeit they have lower crop yields (Qadir et al 2014) as listed in Figure 1.

Salinity in Soil

Soil salinity is one of the most crucial problems that sustainable agriculture is facing in irrigated production systems in certain regions of the world (Ravindran et al. 2007). These salt-affected soils are identified into three categories: saline, sodic, and saline-sodic (Qadir et al. 2014)

Worldwide, there are approximately 581 million hectares of sodic land mainly occurring throughout the Australasia region (Pandey et al. 2011). In India alone, there are about 30 million hectares of coastal land that have been left barren and uncultivable as the affect of salinity (Singh & Surendra 1994 as cited in Balakrishman et al. 2007). Within Western Australia, though the impacts of agricultural clearing stretch across the whole continent, it is most severe in this area with a total of over 1.8 million hectares currently affected by salinity and a further 8.8 million hectares, or 33% larger, is threatened by 2050 (Hatton, 2003). As risks for more damage is incurred yearly, different research approaches to combat this issue also arise.

Current Approaches

Awareness towards land salinisation has begun to peak interest not only for agricultural and environmental researchers but local farmers and policy makers alike too. However, even with  the increased overall knowledge of soil salinisation, it still exists as a major issue and is magnified by large scale desertification and greenhouse effects (Pandey et al. 2011).  A popular statement to resolve this salinity issue was summarised by Hatton (2003): “If deforestation caused the problem, the reafforestation (or new farming systems that behave hydrologically like forests) is the solution.” This view is one of many but this one sees the use of degraded land as an investment with the help of either high community involvement or through building towards more economic agricultural alternatives.

Pander et al. (2011) highlights other potential approaches including phytoremediation practices which includes the use of plants that are impervious to the high salinity of these degraded lands. These plants are best described as halophytes and include herbs such as Suaeda maritima, Clerodendron inerme, and Sesuvium portulacastrum. Ravindran et al. (2007) concluded with results that showed the six species they studied “exhibited accumulation of faults in their tissues and higher reduction of salt in the saline land”. There is an estimated figure found where two halophyte species can remove approximately 500 kilograms of sodium chloride from saline land in one hectare of land within a timeframe of four months (Ravindran et al. 2007). Although there are a multitude of factors needing consideration with phytoremediation, it still is one best options as it is effective, low-cost and is a reasonable solution to remediate sodic soil (Pandey et a. 2011).

Another approach includes having multipurpose tree species plantations on these degraded wastelands. Lamers et al. (2008 as cited in Qadir et al. 2014) expanded on the prospects of initiating agroforestry systems on these wastelands in Uzbekistan where they collected biomass data of three species of trees (Elaegnus anguvstifolia, Ulmus pumilia and Populous euphratica) in a span of four years and compared this to the data of mature trees growing in the area around the marginal land. Their studies suggest that these plantations reap a positive return to the land both environmentally and economically. Finally, they concluded that although this approach brings out further awareness to the community about the need for remediation, certain forestry policies will need to be reoriented as well as a costing to using this strategy to remediate saline lands. Costs for these remediation processes poses as another hurdle to overcome globally.

Related Costs

Costs relating this issue does not stop at the amount of land that is left unusable but also takes into account economic factors such as loss through dismissal employment opportunities, loss of crops and ineffective maintenance costs. To resolve the issue, most agricultural businesses would spend money on inefficient water management and distribution which worsens the land salinity problem. There is a recorded annual income loss from salt affected irrigated areas at a global scale which is around US$12 billion, this is mainly based on crop yield losses (Ghassemi et al. 1995 as cited in Qadir et al. 2014). By taking into consideration any inflation since the 1990’s, this brings up the estimate to around  US$19.1 billion at a global level.

Within Australia, the cost of drylands salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin is reported to cost AU$305 million per annum (Wilson 2003 as cited in Office of Environment and Heritage 2013). These costs take into account any costs put towards agricultural produces, households, as well as commerce and industry. This cost however does not include any damage to the environment or to the local culture. One of the drivers for the innovation of phytoremediation research of Ravindran et al. (2007) was the high cost of chemical and mechanical leaching or by using a drainage system in India. Allocating ample research towards any resolution for these issues will usually bring out hard facts that some procedures will be expensive, however, these discoveries may also lead into finding a suitable solution for low-income countries who can then utilise what is available to them.

With these overall losses, there is a  bigger cost which is the cost of not acting on these salt affected lands at all. Qadir et al. (2014) concludes with the results of losses as low as 15% to a staggering 69% all dependant on the growing crops, the severity of land degradation, water irrigation quality, and the efficiency of drainage systems amongst other things.

Future Perspectives

The particular concern where ecosystem degradation is predicted to more likely skyrocket in low-income countries (Laurance 2001 as cited in Florens & Baider 2013) advocate certain steps that more developed nations can take. The United States and Australia stay to lead the development in science (Florens & Baider 2013) and this knowledge shared with countries who are not so well equipped or have ample funding will surely give benefits globally. Qadir et al. (2014) pursued with study to ensure that these wastelands are being restored in some way as these lands will produce more carbon than act as a carbon sink to lessen the effects of global warming.

This issue not only open up opportunities in agricultural and environmental science but also include agronomy, microbiology, biochemistry, genetical engineering and so on. As these issues prolong their stay, we become more creative and more desperate to try and find any viable solutions. There is a now a possibility to use genetically modified wheat that is able to survive harsh saline environments as some select species are already considered moderately salt tolerant. (Mass & Hoffman 1977 as cited in Shahzad et al. 2013).


Degraded lands, especially those affected by soil salinity is a major issue that nations all over the globe are facing everyday. Losses in crops in these highly saline land masses is just the beginning. However, with the increasing demand of the heightening number of the population, we need to utilise these degraded lands as these are just left to produce carbon the less they are used.

There is also the fact that, economically, the losses are higher if these degraded lands are left to waste away when the usable area is barely meeting the yearly quota of food for the human population. The case studies and research all indicate that it is more cost effective to invest in sustainable land management strategies such as using plants that are impervious to these saline conditions to naturally reduce the salt levels of the soil. This is a cost effective way for developing countries to  tackle land salinity.

Although there are already steps that nations have taken to resolve the salinity issue, there is still an impending threat to the environment in which food security is at stake. There are more steps that can be taken such as further research into genetically modifying crops to become more salt tolerant. Expanding on the horizons to resolving this issue will provide more opportunities for other fields, within and beyond science, to overcome the problem that these degraded lands serve.


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