Artificial saltmarsh ecosystems: the answer to farmland degradation

saltmarsh ecosystems
© iStock/CreativeNature_nl

Seawater Solutions turn salinised and degraded farmland into artificial saltmarsh ecosystems where food can be grown and carbon can be captured.

Coastal and estuarine wetlands have huge, untapped potential. Seawater Solutions – a pioneering Scottish start-up – is working with farmers, landowners, social enterprise organisations (SEOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world to restore or create wetlands to grow superfoods. In the process, Seawater Solutions is helping capture vast amounts of carbon and increasing the productivity of land.

This approach could transform the agricultural sector and improve livelihoods globally and aligns with the Commission’s draft proposal for coastal zones, which are among the most productive areas in the world, offering a wide variety of valuable habitats and ecosystems. Currently, more than 200 million European citizens live near coastlines.

However, this intensive concentration of people and the excessive exploitation of natural resources puts enormous pressure on coastal ecosystems. This leads to biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, pollution and conflicts between potential uses. Coastal zones are also among the most vulnerable areas to climate change and natural hazards. These risks include flooding, erosion, and extreme weather conditions. These impacts are already changing lives and livelihoods in coastal communities.

The post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

The CAP was formed in the 1960s with the main objective of boosting agricultural production. Over the years, it has seen waves of iterations in order to address new threats. Today, it is set to change once more to address climate change and biodiversity. While there is uncertainty about what form this new CAP will take, it is likely that ecosystems-based approaches to agriculture will be prioritised. Over the last 30 years we have understood the value of harmonising agriculture and biodiversity.

However, measures to support regenerative agriculture have not made headway in accelerating the uptake of new approaches in farming that benefit all stakeholders, as well as our environment.

Wetland ecosystems are vital to sustaining Europe’s biodiversity – they provide ideal conditions for a vast diversity of habitats and species. Wetlands support a wide range of public goods and services, such as providing fresh water and recreational and tourism opportunities. They also act as carbon ‘sinks’ and are therefore a fundamental asset in our efforts to reduce levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

However, despite their importance, wetlands are disappearing (for instance, due to drainage and conversion to farmland) or are being polluted at an alarming rate and are among Europe’s most threatened ecosystems. According to Wetlands International, 50% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared in the last century.

Global challenges in agriculture

Almost 50% of EU territory is covered by farmland. Agriculture therefore plays a key role in land management and has a huge responsibility in the preservation of natural resources, especially in the context of managed retreat to restore coastal wetlands.1

In Europe, rising sea levels and conventional tillage practices are resulting in increasing salinisation of soils, which affects an estimated three million hectares and is regarded as a major cause of desertification and degradation by the European Soil Data Center. Worldwide, agriculture is the greatest contributor to the destruction of ecosystems, causing erosion and salinisation on a massive scale. An estimated two billion hectares of farmland around the world has been degraded by salt build-up due to tillage, irrigation, and other soil-degrading farming techniques along with climate induced threats such as droughts. From the steppes of inner Mongolia to the coastlines of Spain, the salinisation of farmland presents the most dangerous, yet rarely mentioned, threat to farming with few solutions.

Enter Seawater Solutions

In 2017, Seawater Solutions was created to address this very threat by turning salinised and degraded farmland into artificial saltmarsh ecosystems where food can be grown, and carbon can be captured. The company has already created the UK’s first seawater farm in Scotland along with saline agriculture and aquaculture projects in Bangladesh and Vietnam that support livelihoods and tackle pollution from fish farming. The company is also planning more sites in Africa and South Asia. By studying coastal saltmarsh wetlands, the team discovered a huge range of species that can grow in extreme salinities with some incredible characteristics. Salicornia Europaea (commonly known as ‘samphire’), could make useful contributions to tackling climate change and food insecurity around the world.

This traditional forage vegetable is already making a comeback in gourmet restaurants around Europe and is growing rapidly in popularity – it is even found in supermarkets around Europe and was recently turned into biofuel that flew a plane from Dubai to London. Hailed as a ‘superfood’, it is packed with essential minerals, including magnesium, potassium, calcium, and sodium. That is in addition to a healthy amount of dietary fiber and vitamin A, B, and C. Furthermore, samphire contains unique compounds called fucoidans often found in sea vegetables, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant characteristics. It also contains Omega 3 and the highest content of linoleic acid found in any plant, making samphire a hugely beneficial addition to diets lacking in diversity and nutrients.

Even more astounding are its environmental benefits. Recent studies have found that samphire, and the saltmarsh ecosystem on which it grows, are natural ‘carbon sinks’ which take in up to 50 times more carbon than rainforests. They protect our coastlines from storms and flooding in similar ways to mangroves and are able to filter and clean water through natural purification. In the context of rising sea-levels, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that saltmarsh ecosystems will prove essential in regulating floods and storms where conventional defences have failed in the past. Importantly, they allow wildlife to flourish and act as a haven for birds and vulnerable insect populations.

Creating these ecosystems artificially has many benefits. In Scotland where Seawater Solutions has been working for the past two years, a former potato field’s soil health improved dramatically within six months, with organic matter increasing from 2 to 8%. Using renewable irrigation systems, seawater is brought onto land twice a day with the tide, mimicking the natural flow of saltwater into saltmarshes. This water contains nutrients from organic matter found in the ocean, such as decaying sea-weed, meaning that no fertilisers or pesticides are required.

Going Global

In 2020, Seawater Solutions is expanding its reach around the world, offering consultancy, training, systems, and partnerships across industry, from farmers to distilleries to public authorities. The company is expanding its products to include carbon credits to be sold to companies and local authorities seeking to become carbon neutral in the next few years. Building on recent successes with its vegetable production, the team will also produce high-value oils and other by-products from these plants to be used for cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

From Europe to South Asia to Africa, Seawater Solutions is partnering with international organisations, NGOs, governments, and farmers to introduce this new approach to regions at risk from the silent threat that salt represents to farmers and ecosystems. The company ethos rests on a strong belief that strategic partnerships between government, research institutions, and the private sector are essential to change our approach to agriculture. Seawater Solutions invites organisations and farmers to seek collaboration on projects in Europe and internationally. Creating opportunity out of environmental threats goes beyond adaptation or mitigation, it is an understanding that nature based solutions are our best hope in tackling climate threats and food security.

References

1 https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/MEMO_13_631

Yanik Nyberg
Founder
Seawater Solutions
+44(0) 7445647107
info@seawatersolutions.org
www.seawatersolutions.org/

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here