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Israeli firm develops groundbreaking method to grow seeds in saline soil

With a fifth of world’s agricultural land now too salty for cultivation, SaliCrop trials in India, Israel, see treated seeds yield up to 32% more crops than regular ones

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Dotan Borenstein, CEO of SaliCrop, stands next to a tractor distributing carrot seeds for a field trial near the Gaza border, August 23, 2020. (Courtesy)
Dotan Borenstein, CEO of SaliCrop, stands next to a tractor distributing carrot seeds for a field trial near the Gaza border, August 23, 2020. (Courtesy)

Israel is already famous worldwide for growing peppers and tomatoes in the arid, salty conditions of the desert.

Now, an Israeli company has come up with an innovative way of enabling a wide range of crops, including rice, wheat and cotton, to grow in saline soils on a large, commercial scale.

On Sunday, Dotan Borenstein was out with his team from SaliCrop, based in central Israel’s Kfar Vitkin, to sow carrot seeds in trial beds in saline soil close to the Gaza border.

Carrots are particularly sensitive to salt, and in that area, the land has become saltier over time because recycled sewage water is used for irrigation.

Fields being prepared close to the Gaza border by SaliCrop for trials of carrot seeds treated to withstand saline soil, August 23, 2020. (Courtesy SaliCrop)

Unless naturally adapted to cope with salt, most plants suffer and even die if the soil is too salty.

Salinity is caused by many factors, some human in origin.

Salts are deposited in the soil by chemicals added to drinking water, by fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides and even by recycled sewage water, which is widely used in Israeli agriculture.

Climate change is also encouraging salinization.

With rising sea levels, salty water is increasingly able to enter subterranean sweet water aquifers and to come crashing into low-lying coastal areas, during storms whose intensity is predicted to increase.

A goat sits on a piece of land in an area flooded by Cyclone Aila, May 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Pavel Rahman/File)

In May, a cyclone in Bangladesh left more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) of land submerged beneath seawater.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around a fifth of the world’s irrigated land is already too saline for crop cultivation, at a loss of some $12 billion per year.

With the need to feed a growing global population, every inch of land becomes more valuable.

SaliCrop believes that it is ahead of the curve with a solution that delivers treated seeds very quickly to market. It involves neither genetic modification, which can take 15 years to clear regulatory hurdles, nor selective breeding, which can take six to seven years.

With SaliCrop’s method, seeds are soaked in a chemical cocktail, under very strict conditions, and can be delivered to market for planting almost immediately. Different cocktails are cooked up for different seed varieties.

The chemicals determine the behavior of various genes.

According to field trials in Israel and India (the latter are already in their third year), the patent increases yields by anywhere between 13 and 32 percent.

CEO Borenstein, 50, who was born on Kibbutz Hanita in northwest Israel, is a former IDF fighter pilot and an ex-VP at clean tech investor Hutchison Kinrot.

He told The Times of Israel that SaliCrop had finalized proof of concept and commercial scalability for 12 crops, and is now expanding.

Panoramic photograph of rice yield before SaliCrop seed treatment (right) and after (left) in Maharashtra, India. (Courtesy, Salicrop)

The company has an agreement for a pilot project to apply its treatment to new grain and vegetable seed varieties being developed by a large agricultural university in Mexico City to help local farmers, and it is close to signing a deal with a major Australian organization that supports grain growers in the country’s drought-stricken west.

SaliCrop is seeking partnerships with seed producers and not-for-profit organizations and will be undertaking a new round of funding next year.

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