Researchers announce breakthrough on salt-tolerant crops

Published October 1, 2001

Agricultural researchers have announced they have genetically engineered tomatoes that can grow in salty water. The breakthrough promises to reverse a gradual decline in productive cropland, and will have its greatest impact in some of the nations with the greatest food shortages.

Researchers created the salt-tolerant tomatoes by isolating a gene in cabbage-like plants that have been remarkably adept at growing in salty water. Introducing the gene into tomato plants allowed them to grow in water that was 50 times saltier than normal.

The discovery marks a significant step in addressing one of agriculture’s largest problems: Longstanding irrigation practices, particularly in dry climates, tend to result in a buildup of salt in the irrigated soil. Over time, irrigated soil tends to become less productive, and experts estimate that 1 percent of the world’s irrigated land is lost to salinization each year.

“Salty water is generally toxic to plants, but we have found a way to increase the tomato’s ability to transport it away and isolate it from the rest of the plant cell,” explained the project’s lead researcher, Eduardo Blumwald of the University of California at Davis. “The sodium is taken up and kept in the leaves, away from the tomato itself.”

Researchers believe the same technology used to make tomatoes salt-tolerant can produce similar results in other food staples such as corn. Moreover, such salt-tolerant crops will pull salt out of their attendant soil, which will allow conventional crops to expand their range.

Importantly, irrigated croplands are particularly prevalent in India, China, Pakistan, and the western United States. Malnutrition is an ongoing problem in the Asian subcontinent.

“This research has very clear and enormous potential,” said Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Water is a huge issue now in agriculture and will be getting bigger, so technology that allows plants to use water more efficiently could have great benefits.”

Blumwald noted the salt-tolerant crops should be able to grow in naturally brackish waters, particularly near shorelines, just as easily as they grow in irrigated croplands.

Conducting the research is just the first step in making salt-tolerant tomatoes available to consumers. Blumwald estimated regulatory processes will postpone consumer access to salt-tolerant tomatoes for roughly three years. Similar delays will occur after field-testing on other crops. Nevertheless, Blumwald is optimistic the research breakthrough will soon give the world’s population access to more prevalent and inexpensive foods.

The Washington Post applauded the breakthrough in an August 5 house editorial. “So far, after all, not a single genetically modified product has been show to harm human health.” To the contrary, stated the Post, “the more abundant and cheaper food that biotechnology promises could make a huge difference to consumers, especially in poor nations with extensive malnourishment.”