The sea level around Charleston, SC, is rising about half an inch each year – a consequence of warming oceans, melting ice and sinking land.
But Sam Norton, local founder of Heron Farms, seizes the opportunity and uses the world’s most abundant resource – seawater – to grow food.
But it’s not fish or seaweed. Instead, the farm is the world’s first indoor saltwater hydroponic farm. Their basic culture: sea beans!
From lemon to lemonade: Norton is no stranger to rising waters. Growing up on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, her family home was increasingly flooded each year.
âI grew up in one of those cities where sea level rise is already a fact. It’s not really political anymore. It just becomes part of the landscape.
âI grew up in one of those cities where sea level rise is already a fact. It’s not really political anymore. It just becomes part of the landscape, âhe said.
When he traveled to Bangladesh and saw the coastal terraced fields flooded with salt water, which impacted the lives of farmers, Norton began to wonder how we could turn the problem of invading seawater in an opportunity.
That’s when he came up with the idea for Heron Farms – an indoor saltwater hydroponic farm that grows salt-tolerant plants called Salicornia for food.
“If you need salt, water, and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize with these salt tolerant plants, and both salt water and carbon dioxide are excess issues, then these are free resources. So it sounds too good to be true, âhe said.
Downstairs in the farm: Sea beans, also called Samphire europaea, are an edible plant that grows in salt marshes. It evolved to live in salt throughout its life cycle, which is why Norton chose sea bean for its first harvest.
“If you need salt, water, and carbon dioxide to photosynthesize with these salt tolerant plants, and both salt water and carbon dioxide are excess issues, then these are free resources. So it sounds too good to be true.
“It is known by all kinds of weird names as a food: sea beans, sapphire, sea pickles, sea asparagus. It is part of the spinach family, so it is genetically similar to spinach and beets,” said Norton, adding that he is sequestering the salt. Sea beans store salt in their cells to regulate their natural environment.
âIt actually tastes like biting into the ocean a bit. It’s like a healthier version of sea salt, âhe said.
According to a 2018 report, published in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, more than 90% of the salts marketed in the world contain microplastics. Heron Farms intends to advertise their crop as a better alternative to salt, reports Charleston Regional Business Journal.
Around the world: Norton isn’t the only one trying to tap into the abundance of seawater. Camila Reveles grows glasswort outdoors in one of the saltiest places on earth: the solar salt pans of Brazil.
A Canadian startup called Agrisea plans to help rice farmers in the Mekong Delta, who, like farmers in Bangladesh, have suffered from drought and saline intrusion.
It turns out that many plants, including rice, already have eight critical genes related to salt tolerance. Plants that have all of these eight genes turned on can grow and even thrive in seawater, but although they are present, they are turned off in rice. Agrisea’s team uses CRISPR to turn on one gene at a time until they have a rice plant with all eight genes turned on, a variety they hope to thrive in salty rice paddies.
Reveles, Norton and others doing similar work may be ahead of the game. According to Jose Dinneny, a plant scientist at Stanford University, future farmers will be forced to grow crops on marginal land, which is not normally not used for agriculture due to salt in the soil or lack of rainfall. But the work Norton and other innovators and startups are doing today will prepare the farmers of tomorrow to turn problem into opportunity, as we feed a growing population.
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