Halophytes May 2017 • 4 minutes

When land is irrigated for agriculture, salt content increases over time as the salt goes unused by fresh water crops and builds up in the soil as water is consumed for plant growth. There are currently 240,000 square miles of land on earth that are too saline to grow conventional food and fuel crops on and that number increases almost 8 square miles a day. As a result we have a France-sized patch of land too salty to grow anything of current use. The operative word there is current because there are plants that could grow there, halophytes, we just lack a market.

Saline plants can be processed into biomass that is useful for a variety of things like biofuel and food. Because these crops would not compete with existing fresh water crops for land use, they could be used for their most valuable purpose. Currently that means biofuel. There are strict regulations on land use that require a good portion of arable land be used for food. This is despite the fact that acre by acre one can generate more revenue and utility growing crops for biofuel. By creating a market for halophytes, you can increase the availability of inputs for biofuel without competing with food crops. This would reduce the price and increase the adoption of biofuel.

The main bottleneck to the adoption of saline plants as a source of biomass is in research to understand how to process halophytes into ethanol and grow it at scale without eroding your equipment in the salt. Various institutions and governments are currently researching how to do this at scale. Once solved the only remaining barrier to adoption will be the lack of economies of scale to support widespread adoption. This could be overcome by following a similar playbook to Tesla in the early days. Start with high margin, low volume products and move downmarket. Step one is create a small market for high margin applications of biomass. This implicates health food. Step two would be move down the biomass pyramid to something higher volume and lower margin. This implicates staple crops. Step three would be achieve complex vertical integration and economy of scale. If you protected your intellectual property appropriately along the way and partnered with the right expertise in biofuel, you could then achieve saline plant biofuel at scale. This would be tremendously profitable as the IP holder and good for the earth at the same time.

The main bottleneck to pursuing the plan is in figuring out how to create a market for an otherwise unknown source of biomass with consumers largely averted to change. The solution involves finding a way to process saline plants such that they taste good. The inherent nutritional properties are actually quite strong: several saline plants are excellent sources of minerals and a vegan source of protein. If you can figure out how to liberate the salt cells from the plant and use the plant material as an ingredient in a health food product, you would achieve step one.

Once step one is achieved, you can use the profitability inherent in selling a high margin consumer product whose inputs are salt water and sunlight to fund step two. Over time the goal would be to drive down the price at which one could profitably sell a halophyte as a staple crop. Similar to the increasing success of Quinoa, economies of scale support further development and beget reduced prices and increased consumption. People want the health benefits and those benefits are largely shared by various halophytes like salicornia. Once you reach Quinoa status you can do step three.

Step three implicates producing halophyte biomass at scale. In order to finance a business of this size you would need some defensible intellectual property. This would likely be a product of pursuing the first and second step of the mission, including figuring out the issue of desalinating the biomass before making food out of it and all of the necessary research that would go into it. Patents on the plant genetics, growing process, harvesting process and processing systems would protect the business and allow safe progression to step three: commoditization.

Because wide scale adoption of halophytes as a biomass are inherently good owing to the lack of competition for existing arable land and superior attributes as a biofuel and food, commoditization of halophytes would be ultimate success. Step three implicates a mass market for the product of the plant including biofuel and food uses. The highest margin opportunities could be pursued, unhindered by existing regulations around land use and likely bolstered by various interested parties in the form of governments, research institutions and businesses.

Once the world has successfully adopted halophytes as a means and source of the various consumable products we use to fuel our quality of life, we will make significant progress reducing the relative wealth required to live and sustain ourselves. The call to action is simple: we need to figure out how to make saline plants taste good. Once we solve that, we can progress to the next step. Before that happens, it is unlikely that halophytes will achieve some miraculous source of economies of scale and without that it is unlikely that we can achieve the original goal.