A green-minded Saudi prince, a visionary Chicago stockyard magnate and a 20-year-old Nebraska lad are among a group of pioneers whose recent success in the Saudi desert may have enormous implications for the Earth's supplies of food and feed.
The three have been involved in a bold experiment at Ras al-Zawr, on Saudi Arabia's northeastern desert coast, to grow the first commercial-sized crop of samphire—the first extensive crop of any kind ever irrigated entirely with seawater.
Outside gourmet circles, where it is treasured as a salad green and a tasty vegetable, few people have heard of samphire. And it is not for its salty crunch that Salicornia bigelovii Torr.—the scientific name of the variety at Ras al-Zawr—is being cultivated. Rather, it is because the salt-loving plant contains more and better edible oil than soybeans, produces valuable animal feed as a by-product, and grows where little else will.
The Ras al-Zawr project belongs to the Arabian Saline Water Technology Company, known as Behar and owned by 20 Saudi investors. Behar means "seas" in Arabic, appropriate enough at a farm where giant pivot-irrigation arms sprayed seawater pumped straight from the Arabian Gulf to produce the initial Salicornia crop in five 50-hectare (123-acre) circles.
Success with samphire could add a new dimension to agriculture, helping to meet the needs of people and livestock in some of the driest, saltiest regions of the globe, say scientists who have studied the plant. Big Salicornia crops might even underpin the construction of "Venice-like" cities for millions of people in some of the poorest parts of the planet. And the crops, fed by canals running through those cities, could help counter the global greenhouse effect by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air.
Fulfilling that "field of dreams" scenario probably lies far in the future, however. Today, a team of Saudi and us agricultural experts works to turn this year's technical success with samphire into a viable commercial project.
Salicornia is important to Saudi Arabia because it offers "a strategic source of vegetable oil and agricultural support products like fodder and meal," says Dr. Adil Bushnak, Behar's chairman. Saudi Arabia now imports more than $1 billion worth of vegetable oil annually for cooking purposes, and neighboring countries' imports are even greater, so large domestic harvests could provide considerable economic benefits.
What makes this variety of samphire so special is the quantity, and the high quality, of the oil it yields. The oil content of the plant's seeds is about 30 percent of its total weight—compared with 17 to 20 percent for the soybean, according to tests by the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Laboratory (ERL) in Tucson, which has spearheaded Salicornia development. Salicornia oil also contains 72 percent linoleic acid—a healthy polyunsaturated fat. That's close to the level found in safflower oil, and more than twice that of oil from soybeans.
Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region also have important poultry and livestock operations which could benefit from a price-competitive, homegrown supply of food Salicornia produces a hefty amount of green matter, say researchers, suitable for exactly that.
Judging by test plantings, Salicornia h.is the potential to break into the market on the basis of oilseed production alone. Yield from portions of a two-hectare (five-acre) field at Jubail Industrial City, 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of the current project, reached as high as 3.5 tons per hectare, or 70 bushels per acre. That's roughly equal to the top yield for soybeans in Cedar County, Iowa, which has some of the richest farmland in the world.
Average output from the 250-hectare (615-acre) farm at Ras al-Zawr hasn't been so high. Although parts of the farm surpassed the goal of 10 tons of forage and one metric ton of seed per hectare—equal to 50 bushels of seed per acre—overall seed yield was lower than originally planned. The crop was planted in October and November 1993 and harvested last September.
The overall message from the 1994 harvest is a good one, though, and the lessons learned in the first year can provide the keys to better production next season; interest in the crop is picking up in other countries the region, too.
The most important result of the first Ras az-Zawr planting was proof that Salicornia can be cultivated successfully on a commercial scale in Saudi Arabia, says Bushnak. "Now we want to do it competitively."
"We've achieved several targets so far: crop data, experience and other information," he adds. "We feel we learned a lot to push the thing forward." Next year, Bushnak says, the focus on research and development will be intensified and the acreage reduced; thereafter, based on yields, the acreage planted will multiply.
Behar's shareholders obviously have high hopes: They have plowed the equivalent of $6.7 million into the first crop of samphire, and Bushnak expects costs to run about half that for the next two seasons. The major shareholder in the company is the Jiddah-based food-processing giant Savola, which helped fund the ERL's Salicornia development effort in the mid-1980's.
Salicornia is a member of the halophyte (literally "salt plant") family, and Halophyte Enterprises Inc. (HEI), based in Phoenix, Arizona, is managing the project for Behar. The Phoenix firm, of which Behar owns 27 percent, was established to commercialize the Salicornia production technology developed by the ERL in work that received key backing from William Wood Prince, who once headed the Chicago Union Stock Yards.
Included among HEI's squad of agricultural experts from the US Midwest, Southwest and West was Jamie Meyer, 20, from a farm near tiny Randolph, Nebraska. The ERL was represented by one of its senior staff members associated with the Salicornia development effort, Dr. James Riley.
Behar's optimal cultivation target for Ras al-Zawr is 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres), consisting of 90 pivot-irrigation circles, each 800 meters (half a mile) across. If the plant takes firm root, however, circles of Salicornia could one day cover up to 200,000 hectares (494,200 acres) along both coasts of Saudi Arabia, providing up to 120 million kilograms (34 million US gallons) of vegetable oil a year, according to a project feasibility study.
Bushnak notes that, to achieve that goal, other farmers around the country would have to take up cultivation of the new crop. "No single company can do that on its own," he says.
"We're really learning how to produce Salicornia on a large scale and then selling the knowledge to other farmers. What I'd like to see," Bushnak adds, "is a developing local industry where Behar is the catalyst."
That may happen beyond Saudi Arabia's borders as well, as the lessons being learned on the Gulf coast start paying off elsewhere, HEI is starting projects this year in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, in northwestern India, that are ultimately targeted to cover 100,000 hectares (247,100 acres). The initial test-research work will cover 250 hectares.
"We're looking for cross-pollination between the [Saudi and Indian] projects in terms of sharing technology and expertise," explains HEI's Ras al-Zawr project manager, Daniel Murphy, who will also ramrod the Indian effort.
"The fact that we have a Saudi project that has shown that Salicornia can be successfully grown in large areas had an impact" in arranging the Indian project, he says. "Additional inquiries have been received from Egypt, Syria and Iran."
A high-profile role in agriculture would be a switch for a plant that—until recently—was not even a wallflower in the farming world. The ERL plucked samphire from obscurity in work begun in the mid-1970's to collect and study halophytes as potential food sources. In a worldwide dragnet, researchers collected some 800 halophytes from seasides as well as from inland areas with brackish water and salty soil. But Salicornia bigelovii, culled from the coasts of the Americas, took the prize in terms of its native oilseed and green-matter productivity.
The researchers then set out to breed the plant into a potential challenger to world oilseed heavyweights such as the soybean, safflower and sunflower, in an 18-year, $20-million development effort.
Salicornia has been "selectively developed" since the early 1980's at a test farm associated with the ERL in Mexico's Sonora state, on the edge of the Gulf of California. There, seeds from only the best specimens are chosen for sowing year after year, progressively building sturdier, better-producing plants. The seed used at Ras al-Zawr was SOS-10, standing for "Salicornia oilseed—10th year of development."
Previously, Salicornia crops had been grown successfully in trial plots in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kuwait, as well as at Jubail.
The plot at Jubail came courtesy of Prince 'Abd Allah ibn Faysal ibn Turki Al Sa'ud, head of the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu', whose responsibility for developing those two industrial cities on the Kingdom's east and west coasts has given him a special interest in the work.
Prince 'Abd Allah's interest is motivated partly by his environmental concerns, explains Bushnak. "He sees [Salicorniacultivation] as a good tool to improve the environment by reducing desertification around the Jubail industrial area...and by turning the desert green."
What makes the Ras al-Zawr project unique is its use of large-scale sea-water irrigation to do that job. Giant computer-controlled pivot-irrigation arms—one for each 50-hectare circle—sprayed seawater pulled in from the Gulf by three diesel pumps at a rate above 28 cubic meters (7,500 gallons) a minute. It took six and a half hours for the arms to complete one circuit, and they often kept turning around the clock.
The salt content of the water they delivered would have choked almost any other plant, for Arabian Gulf water is even saltier than most ocean water worldwide. But the Salicornia loved it. Indeed, at 40,000 parts per million, the Gulf water was well below the 50,000-ppm limit that Salicornia can tolerate without blighting.
Even so, too much salt in the root zone can kill any crop. At the farm, Salicornia was protected from salt buildup in the soil by overwatering to flush the salt below root level and back into the sea.
"We figured out how much to water the plants and then added 25 percent more," explains the ERL's Riley. Fifteen years of seawater irrigation at the Salicornia test farm in Mexico has not affected the crop, he notes.
Not only did the Arabian Gulf provide the water for the crop at Ras al-Zawr, but it also fulfilled most of its nutrient needs. All that was added was nitrogen, provided in the form of urea. Tests of the value of adding phosphorus as well showed some remarkable growth results.
Riley says lessons learned about irrigation and cultivation practices in 1993-94 should help produce a crop with a higher seed yield next fall.
New tactics planned for that 1994-95 season include lowering seeding density to produce fewer but bigger plants; applying phosphorus before planting to promote general crop growth; using "socks," or tubes, to carry water from the irrigation sprinkler heads directly to the ground when plants begin to pollinate; and cutting off irrigation when the largest plants reach full size, instead of waiting for the entire crop to mature.
"We know it will grow," says Riley, echoing Bushnak's words. "Now the question is: 'How can we grow it better?'"
Although 100 tons of this year's Salicornia crop were baled as forage for dairy herds, and Behar is exploring the possibility of air-shipping the crunchy green tips of Salicornia to wholesalers in France as samphire salad-makings next year, the "real value" of the project lies in oilseeds, says Bushnak. "All the focus of next season is to increase oilseed productivity."
And when might the first bottle of Salicornia cooking oil appear on the supermarket shelf? That's still up in the air. Behar shareholder Savola plans to have a $115-million oilseed crushing plant up and running in Jiddah by 1996. Initially, however, it will process imported soybeans.
Only when Salicornia cultivation reaches 10,000 hectares (about 25,000 acres) will there be enough seed to make commercial production feasible, says Dr. Muhammad Kashgari, general manager of Savola's Agro Industries Division. That's a little more than double Ras al-Zawr's maximum projected size.
In the meantime, experts inside and outside the kingdom are investigating the plant's qualities. Tests are continuing to check the quality of Salicornia oil for human consumption, with results to date similar to the thumbs-up it received from the University of Arizona and the Archer Daniels Midland Company in the United States, notes Kashgari.
Salicornia oil might also be used to produce Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. "It has some unique characteristics," says the Savola executive.
The plant has already proved itself as a livestock feed. Salicornia meal—the parts of the seed that are left after oil extraction—contains around 40 percent protein, about the same as soybean meal. Although the meal contains a natural "anti-feedant" chemical called saponin—"like a dill pickle on a hot-fudge sundae," Riley says with a grin—he notes that alfalfa also contains saponin, and that the chemical can be neutralized, without nutritional side effects, by adding cholesterol or phytosterol. The Salicornia meal has been used with success as a poultry-feed additive.
Salicornia straw, left after the seeds are removed, has also proved an acceptable feed source, though it is relatively high in salt and low in protein.
Feeding trials of both meal and straw are under way on lambs, goats, camels and chickens at several sites in the kingdom. Dr. Mohammed al-Dossari of the Animal Production Department at King Faysal University in Hofuf says initial results show that meal from the plant "could easily replace soybean meal" in the diets of ruminants, while Salicornia straw could be used in place of commonly used wheat straw.
Dr. Abdullah al-Saeedi, a soil scientist from King Faysal University who does independent research at Ras al-Zawr, says Salicornia offers a chance to use resources in Saudi Arabia that are otherwise wasted. "It would be a tragedy to miss this opportunity," he says, suggesting that industries use the brine produced at their facilities to grow Salicornia.
Nonpotable well water could also serve as an irrigation supply source for Salicornia, says Riley, although care would have to be taken to avoid polluting freshwater aquifers. Since much of Saudi Arabia's underground water supplies are heavily mineralized, using them this way could add substantially to the extent of potential Salicornia cropland.
Oasis runoff water, already used to irrigate two crops in succession, might also be used in Salicornia fields, Riley says. He adds that water from the giant al-Hasa Oasis on the east side of the kingdom "could be a good possibility" as an irrigation source.
All these possibilities dovetail with official Saudi government policy. A paper on the kingdom's Sixth Development Plan (1995-2000) by the Ministry of Planning puts "the use of saline water in agriculture" high up among the technologies that would benefit the national economy.
Project backing has come from Saudi Arabia's Minister of Agriculture and Water, 'Abdul Rahman AlShaikh, as well as the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs, Dr. Mohamed AlShaikh, says Bushnak.
Mohamed AlShaikh is interested in Ras al-Zawr as a prototype for "seawater communities," says the Behar chief. Writing in the Swedish scientific journal Ambio, ERL researchers said that such communities could become homes for growing numbers of people living on or near the kingdom's coasts.
Indeed, such cities could be built all along the world's arid, subtropical coasts, wherever salty water and soil could be combined to produce Salicornia crops. They might provide homes for the additional 2.5 billion people worldwide—the equivalent of "200 new Cairos"—who will be living near the world's coasts by the mid-21st century, said the ERL experts.
The communities would feature canals that supported aquaculture—fish and shrimp farming—and carried seawater enriched with natural nitrogenous fertilizer—fish and shrimp wastes—to the Salicornia fields.
By extension, the global environment would also stand to benefit by large plantings of Salicornia . Just since 1945, land equivalent to the combined area of China and India has been eroded into the oceans, wrote the ERL experts; using seawater for agriculture could "reverse the flow," reclaiming the land's lost nutrients in the process.
Worldwide, the ERL researchers said, there are 130 million hectares of land (500,000 square miles), about half of it along the coasts, that would lend itself to Salicornia cultivation. That's about equal to the amount of land under conventional irrigation today, and includes large tracts of the desert deltas of the Nile, Colorado, Tigris and Euphrates and Indus rivers that are now too salty for crops.
This isn't just ivory-tower theorizing, says William Wood Prince, who has helped fund the ERL's research along with organizations as diverse as the Electrical Power Research Institute in California, the Rockefeller Foundation and Savola. Wood Prince estimates his own backing of the effort, through F.H. Prince & Co., "in the millions of dollars," and says it is money well spent.
Now in his 80's and long retired, Wood Prince is no stranger to enterprises of global dimensions. In the early 1950's, for example, he lined up the corporate coalition that developed the first liquefied-natural-gas tanker. He has just as vigorously promoted the Salicornia project, but this time because it has the potential to help some of the world's neediest people, he says.
"There is less land for crops [these days], not more; we can't increase [traditional] cropland. That suggests to us that we've got to use seawater to support a growing world population," he says.
Although top-of-the-line commercial pivot-irrigation systems and farm machinery are being used at Ras al-Zawr, Salicornia has also been grown successfully using labor-intensive techniques like flood irrigation, which means that it could also benefit farmers and consumers in lower-income countries.
"On the coast of Africa, in Somalia in particular, there's a lot of land suitable for production," says Wood Prince, adding that Salicornia could help nomads whose cattle herds have been particularly hard hit by recent droughts. He, too, highlights the potential that Salicornia has for bettering the environment.
"We hope to make a great contribution [in remedying] the carbon dioxide problems of the world," he says. "We hope that over the years several hundred thousand acres of Salicornia could have a very important effect throughout the world. Salicornia is more than just commercial. We think it will have tremendous benefits for civilization."
Those are lofty goals. But right now success in the samphire fields lies in the hands of the pioneers at Ras al-Zawr, where the team handling day-to-day chores has faced a number of new, sometimes novel, problems in raising the first crop—as do pioneers anywhere.
Tiny crabs and squid sucked into the sophisticated irrigation system from the sea have gummed up spray nozzles, while the difficulties caused by pumping large volumes of seawater through a system originally engineered for fresh have also been vexing.
The weather has caused headaches, too. In November 1993, winds blew 60 to 70 kilometers per hour (40-50 mph) for 24 hours, kicking up a sandstorm that mowed down newly emerged plants. The solution? Bigger and better-placed sand berms to deflect the winds, and improved management practices to ensure that the crop is well established before autumn storms hit.
The mood is upbeat at Ras al-Zawr, in spite of the difficulties.
"We think it's been a real success," says the ERL's Riley. "We're on a learning curve...and some things you learn by doing."
"I'm optimistic," adds HEI Project Manager Murphy. "This first year has given us the opportunity to study what we need to do to become a commercial enterprise."
For at least one member of the Ras al-Zawr team, however, the project to cultivate samphire has already paid off. Jamie Meyer, the Nebraska college student who worked on the JAMES RILEY farm for several months and returned to school before the harvest, says that wrestling with new problems and—most important—taking big steps toward producing a crop that might benefit the world made his work worthwhile.
"It's not every day that a boy from a town of 900 gets to make history," he says.
Arthur Clark, a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, is an occasional consumer of samphire salads, and has followed the Ras al-Zawr project for the last two years.