Salty Soil

California is one of the bread baskets of the United States, with the San Joaquin Valley supplying 1/3 of the vegetables and 2/3 of the fruits and nuts consumed in the U.S. each year. The productivity of this region is also leading to the doom of its major industry, farming. This is because water carries with it trace amounts of salt. Irrigation will lead to increased levels of salt over time, especially in arid climates with little rainfall.

So far, 88,000 acres of farmland have been retired because of increased salination resulting from irrigation practices. Although much of this farmland has been repurposed for solar energy farms, the problem of increasing salination is a worrisome one. The U.N has estimated that food production will need to vastly expand by 2050 to cover the expected population increase.

An area the size of France, or about 62 million hectares of land, has been spoiled by soil salination. This is an increase from the 45 million hectares measured in the 1990s. This spoiled soil represents about 20% of irrigated lands worldwide. Each week, the world loses land comparable to the size of Manhattan due to increased salination of soil.

The effects of soil salination are increased during periods of drought, as groundwater must be used to support crop growth. Removing groundwater from the ground leaves a vacuum in the soil, which provides space for increased seawater to fill the underground water table.

One potential solution to this is to use crops less sensitive to salt, as farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are currently attempting to do. The crops that are most profitable and healthy are often those that are the most sensitive to salt, however, leaving farmers in a no win situation. Scientists have proposed using GMO foods to counteract the increased salination of the soil, but this research is currently in its preliminary stage. The reality is that some soil will never be recovered and used for crop growth. Where this occurs, there are unique opportunities to support other environmentally sustainable practices, as farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are finding when they repurpose their farms to become solar energy farms. e must find a way to properly deal with the effects

We must do more, however, and must find a way to properly deal with the effects of climate change, increased population, and agricultural growth. The current methods do not only have negative impacts on farmland but are also increasingly water intensive. As discussed last week, there is increasing concern that the world’s freshwater sources are insufficient to meet current demand. Only by refocusing on a sustainable future can we address these problems sufficiently.