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Salicornia sells for about 20 euros per kilo in American organic food supermarkets and a modern Las Vegas restaurant has among its specials a plate of scallops with salicornia puree for $ 9. Here, these curly legumes cover hectares of green rows in which Dan Murphy recovers land considered infertile until his arrival.
Salicornia is the first commercial food product grown entirely in soil irrigated with seawater, Murphy is using it as a platform to subsidize the spread of other saltwater tolerant crops. It has already had some successes, such as a marine aster (an edible vegetable), purslane, and something called "crystalline," a species of lettuce found off the coast of South Africa whose leaves glisten with specks of salt crystal. The plan to grow seawater tolerant grass for golf courses remains to be done.
"All the plants on earth have ancestors that lived only in seawater," says Murphy, American co-founder of Saline seed Mexico in 1999. "The trick is to discover which ones we can grow commercially."
Irrigation of cash crops with seawater has been the Holy Grail of agrofuturists. Salt tolerance can be forced into plants that grow in fresh water through genetic engineering or - as in the case of Saline Seed - by selecting species that can be "trained" to live with salt water for many generations.
Salicornia is traditionally harvested for only a short season. Its roots grow in dry soils of coastal estuaries. The idea of its cultivation is simple: all life derived from sea water; therefore, all life, animal or vegetable, retains a genetic "subconscious" that can be awakened.
After three years, Saline Seed is profitable, with annual sales of about half a million dollars. The company ships up to three tons of salicornia weekly to Los Angeles, where they are distributed by a local wholesaler or flown to Europe. Competition, either from traditional collectors in Europe or small aquaculture cooperatives in places like Portugal and Chile, has had little impact on Murphy's sales. "No one can commit to offering a consistent product throughout the year," he insists, and that gives restaurants and supermarkets the confidence to promote a specialized product that, by all accounts, becomes more popular over time. "It tastes so intense that people taste it and their eyes pop out of their heads," says Milo Radoja, who works in the produce department of the organic grocery store chain Whole Foods in Tempe, Arizona. Buyers use it as a substitute for salt, he says, sprinkling over salad or chopped with rice.
Saline Seed is looking for its new crops in the wild flora. José Ramón Noriega, Murphy's partner at Saline Seed, is an avid observer looking for candidates. Just as today's fruits and vegetables have evolved from their seawater-tolerant ancestors, they have also spread wild "bastard" varieties. "The birds here in Baja California ingest the seeds of domestic tomatoes and then leave their droppings in estuaries on the coast," explains Noriega. The result is a wild tomato capable of living on sea water. In his research on the Baja Coast, Noriega has found "marine" varieties of guava, celery and beet that should be able to adapt, like salicornia, to dry land crops.
In the long term, Saline Seed hopes that its true beneficiaries will not be eco-food diners, but the communities that now budget billions of dollars each year to irrigate public lands with fresh water. Saline Seed also has a second farm where it grows plants for landscaping and herbs tolerant to salt water for the promoters of Laguna del Mar, a golf complex in Puerto Peñasco, in the Bay of Cortés. Someday, alfalfa and forage plants may be the big hit in seawater irrigation. In addition to Salicornia, Saline Seed grows a dozen varieties in experimental plots. "The cows we give it to like it," says Noriega. Ranchers like it too, he adds. "They don't have to buy sodium supplements to add to the (livestock) feed."