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Salt Crisis
November 25, 2006 3:29 PM   Subscribe

Salt: Not just a condiment, salt is a major force shaping our world. In Australia, what do you get when you combine ancient salt-pans with European farming practices? In one state alone, we're losing a football field an hour to the salinity crisis. What do you farm when all you have is salt?
posted by ninazer0 (33 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Bah. The "what do you farm" link should have gone here...
posted by ninazer0 at 3:30 PM on November 25, 2006


Where are we gonna work (when the trees are all gone?) . I like the Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra version of this song.
posted by Eekacat at 3:46 PM on November 25, 2006


What do you farm when all you have is salt?

I'm guessing... salt?
posted by grouse at 4:14 PM on November 25, 2006


Smoked salt. Sorry, I have no other words for a world in which salt which has been sitting in smoke for a bit is considered a gourmet condiment.

If you're interested in that, I have some rubber chair feet rolled around in crumbs of burnt toast you might like the taste of.
posted by randomination at 4:27 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Salt: A World History
posted by danb at 4:29 PM on November 25, 2006


Smoked salt. And spiced salt! Good lord! What kind or freak would want their food to taste salty or smokey or spicey? Inconceivable!
posted by ninazer0 at 4:43 PM on November 25, 2006


The ultimate question is, "What do you salt when you have no more farms?"
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:47 PM on November 25, 2006


Genetic engineering has already created a breed of rice which can grow in soil which is too salty for normal rice. There's every reason to believe that the same genetic modification would work for other crops. (That particular breed of rice also is much more resistant to drought.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:07 PM on November 25, 2006


Australian Murray River Pink Salt.
posted by porpoise at 5:10 PM on November 25, 2006


Two thumbs up for Kurlansky's book. When you are done with that you can read Cod.
posted by fixedgear at 5:10 PM on November 25, 2006


That Kurlansky book was OK, but it was no "Cod" or "Basque History of the World."
posted by veggieboy at 5:19 PM on November 25, 2006


There's every reason to believe that the same genetic modification would work for other crops.

Really? If only genetic engineering was as easy as this sentence implies!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:27 PM on November 25, 2006


SCDB also appears unaware that the attempts to grow rice in south-eastern Australia could well be blamed for much of the current crisis on the Murray River.
posted by Jimbob at 5:50 PM on November 25, 2006


we're losing a football field an hour to the salinity crisis
Well, switch to another sport, or just play video games, I suppose.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:56 PM on November 25, 2006


w-g p : The ultimate question is, "What do you salt when you have no more farms?"

The earth.
posted by quin at 5:57 PM on November 25, 2006


Really? If only genetic engineering was as easy as this sentence implies!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:27 PM PST


On the USS Clueless, it is that simple.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:00 PM on November 25, 2006


I blame Anne Murray.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:04 PM on November 25, 2006


Jared Diamond's Collapse devotes much of its chapter on Australia to the mobilized salt problem.

Diamond devotes a chapter to rebuttals of what he calls "one-liner responses". Steven's response is typical of the "We humans is smart" crowd, what Diamond glosses as "Technology will solve all our problems." He calls this

an expression of faith about the future ... based on a ssupposed track record of technology having solved more problems than it created in the recent past. Underlying this expression of faith is the implicit assumption that, from tomorrow onward, technology will function primarily to solve existing problems and will cease to create new problems. Those with such faith also assume that the new technologies will succeed, and that they will do so quickly enough to make a big difference soon....

But actual experience is the opposite of this track record. [Some technologies succed, most don't. Those that do take a long time before widespread adoption.] New technologies, whether or not they succeed in solving the problme that they were designed to solve, regularly create unanticipated new problems. Technological solutions to environmental problems are routinely many times more expensive than preventive measures to avoid the problem in the first place....

Most of all, technology just increases our ability to do things, for better or for worse.


I had known that Australia had salinity issues with most of its agricultural land. I didn't know until I read Diamond how long-term those issues are and how structurally difficult they will be to solve, even for a first world society like Australia that is, at the moment, economically and socially healthy. The salt problem isn't just a problem for one farmer, you see -- it's a problem for all the farmers downhill from his farm, and all the farmers who depend on the low salinity of the freshwater supply in the whole of the Murray-Darling basin. The salt mobilized from a single farm's poor agricultural practices -- and we're not talking now, we're talking about the last 150 years -- will continue to flow down"stream" underground for on the order of 500 years. A farm as yet unaffected may have a limited agricultural lifespan. Even so, the entire drainage basin will gradually see the salinity of its waters increase and the available fresh water decrease.
posted by dhartung at 6:05 PM on November 25, 2006


randomination writes "Smoked salt. Sorry, I have no other words for a world in which salt which has been sitting in smoke for a bit is considered a gourmet condiment."

Er, what's wrong with you?

Salt is essential to taste as well as bodily functions. Smoke--depending on the type of wood used--adds a fantastic amount of flavour. In what world is it not a good idea to combine the two?
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:47 PM on November 25, 2006


How odd! I was just watching the Good Eats special one hour episode on salt, "Eat This Rock!" yesterday... lots of good information there. Alton Brown is a fan of the smoked kind too!
posted by ab3 at 7:17 PM on November 25, 2006


what, no pepper?
posted by jonmc at 7:51 PM on November 25, 2006


Here's the announcement about that modified rice.

What they did was study a desert specialist called the "resurrection plant". They learned that the source of its abilities seemed to be a particular sugar called trehalose. Several unrelated desert specialists all turned out to have high levels of that sugar. So they ended up incorporating a couple of genes (from E. Coli, it turns out) which gave the ability to synthesize trehalose and incorporated it into rice with a tag that made the gene only express in rice stalks. (It doesn't express in the grain.)

Once they got it right, it bred true and it tolerates salt and drought very well. The gene and modification technique they used should work equally well with other crops, and it seems likely that trehalose would have the same effect in them -- though of course we won't know for sure until someone tries it.

This was developed at Cornell. They patented it, and have put the patent into the public domain.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:20 PM on November 25, 2006


From Something New Under the Sun (2000):
By 1980 salinization had corroded agriculture on about %25 of all irrigated land in India, Pakistan, the USA and Egypt. By the 1990's, salinization seriously affected about 10 percent of the worlds irrigated lands. By 1996 it ruined land as fast an engineers could irrigate new land, so that the world's total irrigated land remained roughly at a constant.
posted by stbalbach at 8:54 PM on November 25, 2006


The previously-referenced "Salt: A World History" is an AWESOME book. Highly recommended.
posted by mrbill at 9:01 PM on November 25, 2006


Salinization (which is caused by irrigation) is ruining land globally as fast or faster than new lands can be irrigated. This is a new trend that started in the 1990s. Kind of like taking fish out of the ocean faster than they can reproduce, or slash and burn farming. Eventually there is a "peak" when the bell curve goes the other way. Then we start eating soylent green.
posted by stbalbach at 9:13 PM on November 25, 2006


I'll take it with a grain of salt, might even throw a pinch over my left shoulder.
posted by wtfchuck at 10:26 PM on November 25, 2006


Unfortunately, I think it still takes potable water to make Soylent Green, and it's potable water we're running out of the fastest.

Steve CDB: I don't think genetic engineering is going to help in this instance when the issue is mostly the method rather than the crop. Australia did once have an inland sea, so no matter how salt-resistant the plants might be, as soon as you put water into the soil, there's going to be an issue.

And, just as unfortunately, the attitude of some farmers is "I've farmed this way for years. It was good enough for my father and his father and so on," which is why I feel a twinge of hope when someone takes a different approach to the situation and turns a problem into a bonus.
posted by ninazer0 at 10:56 PM on November 25, 2006


Rock salt, or Saindhav (once known generically as Bombay salt), is the New Black. Despite its pinkish hue, it's actually called "black salt", due to it's unique flavor. The secret? Minute traces of dissolved sulphur.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:16 AM on November 26, 2006


It is strange to be 500km inland, in the middle of a plain that stretches to the horizon with nary a tree in sight and smell briney air. Refreshing and yet deeply wrong as there is no turqiose surf to take a dip in.

I am sure the current drought isn't helping things.

It would be nice to believe that we can engineer our way out of the salinity problem, but I find it unlikely that a quick fix will be possible. Salting the land has been a method of genocidal war-mongerers for good reason.

I like the idea that if we were given the individual ability to ge plants to survive in our local environment, we would solve all these issues due to the potential of human ingenuity. However, how do we protect ourselves from making plants that cause more problems down the line? As dhartung quotes from Jared Diamond, prevention is much more likely to be effective than technological solution.

Australia (and the rest of the world) is in dire need of a shake-up as regards proper use of environmental resources, rather than mis-use. Howard, residing comfortably in the pocket of coal and uranium interests, is not going to be the one to do it.
posted by asok at 11:22 AM on November 26, 2006


I really wished I lived in SCDB's world. It reminds me of the content of Donald Fagen's "I.G.Y.".
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:52 AM on November 26, 2006


What size and shape football field? I mean, in WA it would be a footy oval, which is substantially larger than a soccer pitch.

Actually, the salinity crisis has been massively overblown for the Murray-Darling basin. While it is still an important economic factor, it is not the doom and gloom that we were all thinking only a decade back. Salt interception schemes have worked, together with substantial and ongoing catchment rehabilitation works, so the rate of expansion has greatly slowed. We wont be facing the spectre of abandonment of large areas of productive land.

I understand that the situation is far worse in WAs wheatbelt.
posted by wilful at 3:14 PM on November 26, 2006


We wont be facing the spectre of abandonment of large areas of productive land.

...due to salt... in the near future... probably...
posted by pompomtom at 10:02 PM on November 26, 2006


So if Australia is devastated by salt, can we dress in leather and ride around the desert in bad-ass cars?
posted by spazzm at 3:18 AM on November 27, 2006


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