Halophytes, the answer to sustainable Biofuel?

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Halophytes are salt loving/tolerant plants that can grow in saline waters ranging from slightly salty, to seawater and above the salinity of seawater. Halophytes include grasses, shrubs and trees; they occur naturally and can also be cultivated in coastal marshes and deserts, in arid and semi arid hinterland that have turned saline and unsuitable for conventional agriculture.

Having participated in growing halophytes for animal feed, oil, landscape and environmental purposes I have been following recent R&D efforts of Biofuel production from halophytes with great interest. Especially that from an Integrated Seawater Agriculture System (ISAS), as most of my experience of halophytes comes from working at Seawater Farms Eritrea which is believed to be the world’s first Integrated Seawater Farm. I have in fact turned into halophyte enthusiast as I was privileged to witness and envisage the potential of halophytes from the projects I worked for. Moreover, the extraordinary passion and perseverance of the scientists leading the endeavours, Dr. Gordon H. Sato of Manzanar project working in greening coastal deserts and Dr. Carl N. Hodges, of Seawater foundation , have also made me believe that the world should soon recognise halophytes as one of the important solutions to mitigate global warming and poverty in coastal communities.

After reading the news “Masdar Institute Completes First Sustainability Assessment for Biofuels Production from an Integrated Seawater Agriculture System”,
I thought probably this very breakthrough may be one of the wakeup calls to bring the world’s attention towards halophytes at a higher level. The new wave of innovation for Biofuels and the controversies around the sustainability of conventional crops as a feedstock for biofuel will likely help halophytes to get timely focus and advantage.

In recent years the pursuit for alternative renewable energy resources has intensified driven by the escalation in the price of oil, concern about the supply, environmental impacts of fossil fuels, dependence on foreign oil being viewed as national security issue. Countries such as the United States, European Union countries, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Thailand have all adopted policy measures and set targets for the development of biofuels. These countries have embraced the opportunity to foster the development of biofuels in order to respond to the threats of climate change, to lessen their dependency on oil and to contribute to enhancing agriculture and rural development.

While the rationale of biofuels is clear, the reality is complex and the socio economic sustainability issues of Biofuel is highly challenged by critics. Most currently used biofuel sources are conventional crops such as corn, sugar cane, rape oil-seed, palm oil and do not meet for most of the sustainability related issues raised here. Specific examples include bioethanol, made from sugar and starch crops, and biodiesel, made from vegetable oils, animal fats and other recycled greases.

Aspects such as competition with food, land use, energy efficiency, pressure on other important resources including freshwater, rain forest and in some cases political instability are issues of ongoing controversy around conventional Biofuel.

In Indonesia, for example, large areas of rainforest have been cleared to plant palm oils for biofuels. The country’s total rainforest area will soon be about half of what it was in 1990 if current trends continue. (Science and development network, 2010)In the case of northern China, India and the western corn/soy belt in the US, reference is often made to the possible intensive use of scarce water for irrigation. (World Watch Institute, 2006). Biofuels have also become interlinked with investor land grabbing, which deprives locals of precious farmland. High food prices due to biofuel production have caused riots in over 30 countries in 2008, and contributed to the start of the historic uprisings this spring in the Arab world. Madagascar’s government was overthrown in 2008, partly because of popular opposition to a land deal with a South Korean company.

From the point of view of the above concerns it seems obvious why the world should address and look for a solution to the sustainability issue of biofuel production. Can halophytes be part of the solution? I strongly believe so. I will refer to the news from Masdar institute and some facts from the website of Seawater foundation to answer the question how halophytes can be the answer to sustainable biofuel sources.

The news on Masdar institute reads:
“ISAS combines aquaculture, Salicornia cultivation, and mangrove silviculture into an integrated low-impact system for biofuel production that relies on seawater irrigation and does not compete for arable land..”

The fact that Halophytes such as “Salicornia bigelovii” can be grown using seawater irrigation in harsh environments and do not compete with food crops for limited fresh water and fertile land, makes them promising sources of  sustainable Biofuel.

It is worth reiterating that Seawater based solutions such as -algae culture, aquaculture , halophyte agriculture and forestry- integrated withone another or independently (when carried out responsibly) can contribute considerably to mitigate a number of our global environmental and poverty reduction challenges. As any technological breakthroughs these available solutions can be more technically and economically viable through further research and development. It is therefore high time the world directs appropriate attention and investment to seawater based solutions, however unconventional they may be.

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