Nipa saltgrass (Distichlis palmeri) growing on the sea shore in the Gulf of California, Sonora, Mexico

Domesticating Saltwater Crops for Future Food Needs

Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

  • Next Generation Crops

Climate change, rising sea levels and depleting freshwater reserves are causing a rapid increase in soil salinization, meaning higher levels of salt in the ground. As staple crops almost exclusively rely on freshwater, increased soil salinity threatens future food security. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) is providing a $985,000 Seeding Solutions grant to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to assess the domestication potential of Distichlis palmeri (D. palmeri), a saltwater-loving plant found in the tidal plains around the Gulf of California in Mexico, which would help transition salt-degraded lands into productive, sustainable agriculture ecosystems. KAUST provided matching funds for a total investment of $1,984,237.

Rising sea levels threaten coastal agriculture just as much as coastal cities, and meeting our nutritional needs in the face of increasingly salinized farmland requires us to expand production of underutilized crops. This research will allow us to develop new agriculture possibilities in seawater-inundated and salt-degraded land. Angela Records, Ph.D.
Chief Scientific Officer

With over 50% of irrigated land affected by soil salination, tens of millions of hectares of land are abandoned annually. Researchers have attempted to breed saline tolerance into commonly consumed crops, but this work has yielded limited success. D. palmeri, known by Indigenous peoples as nipa, has grain characteristics and nutritional content similar to rice and wheat, and was an important food for the Cocopah nation in the Rio Colorado delta. While it could be a suitable crop for soil and irrigation water with high saline levels, not enough is currently known about the species to allow large-scale breeding and develop improved varieties for production.

KAUST researchers, led by Dr. Jesse Poland, professor of plant Science in the Center for Desert Agriculture, are joined by key collaborators from the native territory of D. palmeri in Mexico including Dr. Ángela Corina Hayano Kanashiro from Universidad de Sonora, Dr. Francisco Molina Freaner from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and Dr. Blanca R. Lopez and Dr. Alfonso Medel-Narváez from Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste S.C. Together, the team is building a foundational knowledge of the D. palmeri genome to enable the crop’s domestication. The research is developing resources and tools for genome-assisted breeding and other advanced breeding methods. The researchers are also investigating the plant’s physiology and genetic basis of critical breeding and domestication traits.

“It is very clear that we face a challenging future in agriculture with limited water resources and corresponding salinity problems,” said Dr. Poland. “It is truly exciting to embark on some potentially trajectory-changing research with this project and notable to see FFAR and KAUST investing in this vision and the grand challenges of food security in the coming decades.”

Expanding our understanding of D. palmeri can enable breeders and growers to improve its nutritional content and expand its ability to grow in a variety of highly salinized environments. The researchers hope that unlocking the genomic and breeding potential of the crop can also serve as a basis for the domestication and at-scale production of other saltwater-loving plants.

Photo: Nipa saltgrass (Distichlis palmeri) growing on the seashore in the Gulf of California, Sonora, Mexico [courtesy of Jesse Poland].


Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.


King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Established in 2009, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is a graduate research university devoted to finding solutions for some of the most pressing scientific and technological challenges in the world as well as Saudi Arabia in the areas of food and health, water, energy, environment and the digital domain. KAUST is a curiosity-driven, interdisciplinary problem-solving environment, with state-of-the-art labs, distinguished faculty and talented students. KAUST brings together the best minds from around the world to advance research. More than 120 different nationalities live, work and study on campus. KAUST is also a catalyst for innovation, economic development and social prosperity, with research resulting in novel patents and products, enterprising startups, regional and global initiatives, and collaboration with other academic institutions, industries and Saudi agencies.

Connect: @KAUST (LinkedIn) / @KAUSTOfficial (FB) / @KAUST_News (Twitter)

Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA)

Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA) is a research center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) dedicated to the study, engineering, and implementation of sustainable agriculture systems in extreme environments. These systems will produce and deliver fresh, nutritious, and high-value crops with a reduced environmental footprint (e.g., less water, fertilizer, pesticides, and GHG emissions), thereby promoting healthy lifestyles and a clean environment for generations to come.

Connect: @KAUSTCDA

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