By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

As worries of food scarcity grow, it’s comforting to know that agriculture researchers are leaving no field of inquiry fallow.

At Brigham Young University, a research team has confronted one problem that’s confounded those trying to extend our nation’s “bread basket” and which plagues the unique landscape surrounding Salt Lake City – that of salty soil in which growing anything green can be a monumental task.

Aiming to turn these arid lands into useable crop fields, they searched the globe for plants that can grow in salty conditions. They landed on a salt-tolerant plant called Panicum turgidum that – surprise – thrived in many coastal areas. After measuring its protein contain, they agreed it could be a suitable alternative to corn feed grain for cattle, according to a Newswise news release about the findings.

“It seems odd that salty soil and salty water could produce useful crops, but that’s what this study showed,” said Brent Nielsen, chair of BYU’s microbiology and molecular biology department and corresponding author on the study, which is published in the online journal, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment.

Panicum, they found, was happy in the salty soil, and could be watered with the local salty water. As long as the team planted a companion plant, a “salt accumulator”, that soaked up the extra salt poured on to the soil, the process was sustainable, resulting in soil that maintained its salt balance.

The potential for the United States: Grow cattle feed in Utah, and open up good rich farmland in the Midwest for growing food for dinner tables, quality corn, and more fruits and vegetables that require rich black soils.

For dry salty places around the world, like in southern Pakistan where the underground water is salty, the process could be used to build a local food source for livestock. Such a plan “would have enormous impact on the quality of life in local communities,” said Ajmal Khan, a professor at the University of Karachi who helped conduct a test of the system in Pakistan and is an author of the BYU study. (See photo of Panicum in a field in Pakistan, above.)

Khan has worked at BYU, and his wife, Bilquees Gul, earned her Ph.D. at the Utah university. Gul also is a co-author on the study.
The team is now studying whether they can modify other plants to grow in the salt flats. As for the cattle, and the question of whether they should be eating this, the researchers found that the cattle they tested over a year’s time grew just as well as those raised on corn.

Which begs the question dogging the beef industry, should cattle, natural grazers, even be eating corn? Corn-fed bovines, especially those that are put on a fast-track of eating grains, have been criticized as being unhealthy and producing fattier meat.

Should Panicum turn out to be more like a grass feed, as opposed to corn, we, our livestock and our arteries might be better off.

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