News - July 7, 2011

Farming at sea

In this column two weeks ago I argued for a real revolution to combat the problems caused by the excess nitrogen that ends up in the natural environment. Most of these problems are caused by the surplus fertilizer from agriculture. Big changes are called for, I remarked.

Well, one possible change would be to adopt new forms of agriculture, with producing food in salt water holding out good prospects. This doesn't just mean harvesting mussels and oysters, but also cultivating plants. Large and small. Growing algae in salt water at sea can produce cattle fodder and biofuel, but vegetables grown in brackish water also seem to have more than marginal potential. Seaweeds, marsh samphire and sea lavender all thrive in conditions which are inhospitable to most plants. You won't need the salt on the table if you eat them. It is a good idea for agriculture and nature departments to work together from the start. Not just to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But also because the sea lavender used in brackish agriculture is the plant with the botanical name Aster tripolium, while the botanical sea lavender (Limonium vulgare) would taste pretty vile if it ended up on the table. Those are the plants that turn the low-lying, uncultivated water meadows of the Wadden islands into a carpet of glorious purple. I can just picture it: Henk Bleker and Jan Jaap de Graeff (responsible for nature and agriculture) together in Zeeland, the land of lapping water, westerly winds and silt clay soils. Each enjoying their own views over their own fields of sea lavender. Together on a dike overlooking the Hedwig polder.