Salt-tolerant crops ‘revolutionise’ life for struggling farmers

28Sep 2021
The Guardian
Salt-tolerant crops ‘revolutionise’ life for struggling farmers

LIKE millions of people across Bangladesh, Anita Bala, 45, relies on a small plot of land to feed her family.

Farmers can grow crops adapted to the saline soil that affects more than half of coastal Bangladesh.

By Redwan Ahmed

But for years nothing would grow. Her husband farmed shrimp in the salty ponds on their land, but the surrounding ground was barren. Bala’s efforts to cultivate beans and pulses failed repeatedly. Eventually she gave up.

Bala lives in a village in the southern coastal region of Patuakhali district, an area extremely vulnerable to flooding and cyclones, and her farming problems were a result of increased salinity in the soil. She is not alone. According to Dutch NGO Cordaid, 53% of coastal Bangladesh is affected by salinisation. By 2050, it is predicted that one in seven people in the country will be displaced by climate breakdown. The sea level is projected to rise by 50cm over the same period, leading to a loss of about 11% of Bangladesh’s land.

As well as the natural disasters aggravated by the climate emergency, unsustainable shrimp farming compounds the problem, jeopardising the lives of those who rely on agriculture.

But the farmers of Patuakhali are adapting. Following the lead of an innovative Dutch farmer who discovered that some varieties of fruit and vegetables can grow – and thrive – in saline soil, ICCO (now part of Cordaid) began introducing farmers in the region to salt-tolerant crops. Its project, the Salt Solution, reached 5,000 small-scale farmers, including Bala, who said the technique has “revolutionized” her farming practices. Saline-tolerant seeds imported from the Netherlands were distributed, demonstration plots established and training in new planting methods given. Lead community farmers were identified to help spread the word.

Potatoes, carrots, gourds, red beets, cabbages, Indian spinach, coriander and more have been harvested since the project began in 2017. The initiative aims to reach another 5,000 farmers by 2024.

Abdul Aziz, 50, a farmer and one of the community leaders of the project, pointed towards his farmland in Kumirmara village, where he’s harvesting bitter gourds and watermelons.

“I’ve used raised beds to plant the seeds. Raised beds provide multiple benefits – the weed growth is reduced and the roots have an easier time growing. In between, trenches can be used for easy growing leafy plants. And before planting, we test the soil for the salinity level using a rapid test kit,” said Aziz.

In the past, the farmers had to take soil samples to a government-run laboratory many miles away, so ICCO introduced a saline testing kit that gives results in minutes and helps farmers decide which seeds to plant for maximum yield.

“Smallholder farmers all over the world will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change, such as this problem of salinization. With this form of climate adaptation, we turn a growing problem into a sustainable solution. Instead of fighting the salt in the soil, we want salt-affected soil to be able to be used for agriculture again,” said Masud Rana, from ICCO’s agriculture division in Bangladesh.

Four years on from the start of the project, ICCO has teamed up with private and public institutions to ensure the initiative is sustainable long term. Partners include Bangladesh Agricultural University, which is adding saline agriculture to its curriculum; and the Soil Resource Development Institute, which helps inform government policy. Bangladeshi seed company Lal Teer is developing commercially viable, affordable seeds to reduce reliance on imports.

“We as an aid agency have certain limitations. If we can’t ensure the logistics, the training and the skills of the farmers will go in vain,” said Rana.

In the meantime, the Salt Solution project has helped improve the diets of thousands of farming families, as well as providing a source of income through the sale of excess crops.

“The extra money means that I can pay for my son to go to high school now,” said Bala.

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