India unveils coastal saline crop initiative

Halophyte in Tamil Nadu Halophytes could transform coastal areas of India and the wider South Asia

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A pilot project to see if cash crops can be grown in the salty ground of India's coastal areas has been launched.

The area in Tamil Nadu state will house dozens of species of halophytes - or salt-loving plants - that can be used for producing cash crops.

Halophytes can be used to produce edible oils, medicines, vegetables, and cattle and fish feed.

Halophytes can be found throughout the coastal areas of India.

Marine biologists involved in the project say that salt-resistant plants are important for people living in coastal areas, where vast tracts of land have turned saline and unsuitable for any other form of cultivation.

In recent years, river water and groundwater supplies have depleted rapidly, principally because of increasing irrigation.

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has called the project - which is funded by the Indian government - a historic step towards eco-conservation.

Backers of the scheme say it could transform agricultural production in coastal areas which are becoming increasingly saline not only in India but in other parts of South Asia as well.

"Global warming causes sea waters to rise and as such inundated areas will increase substantially in years to come, turning large amount of coastal land saline and unfit for regular crops," said the project's director, V Selvam.

Dr Selvam - who works for the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, which runs the project - said the aim was to see whether sea water could be considered a social resource, and if so in what way it could be used to increase food production.

Saline water plants can also be used to produce fine chemicals, biofuels and even building materials, Dr Selvam said.

Field studies conducted in the US and East Africa have suggested that halophytes such as sea asparagus can be grown as commercial crops.

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