“Sea beans” and saltwater agriculture- a moment of science

Storm Team 2

The numbers don’t lie– Charleston is flooding more often.

If this trend continues, which it likely will, there will be areas in the Lowcountry that will be lost to rising seas. Lost to continued urban development, but not totally lost. 

“Seawater agriculture looks to use that incoming seawater as a resource. Less than 2 percent of land plants are what are called halophytes, these are plants that have evolved to tolerate salt.”

Sam Norton, a graduate student at C of C, has been experimenting with one called salicornia. Salicornia is found in the salt marshes around the world, including Charleston, and is a culinary delicacy.

“Europeans have been eating it, Koreans have been eating it for a very long time. Shakespeare called it samphire.”

Here it’s called sea beans. They’re sporadically harvested in the wild during the summer months but hasn’t made it mainstream here due to the short growing season and the absence of farms growing sea beans. Well no longer as Norton can cultivate these green stalks year round with this indoor set up. Grown in these racks, feed with saltwater and artificial lights, then trimmed and harvested.

“In the size of your kitchen sink, you can grow three pounds of food in a month using only saltwater.”

His previous harvests have made it on the menu at local restaurants and even local beers but what does it taste like?

You might have guessed it- salty. Much like oysters, it tastes like the seawater it grows in, starting off mild and green and becomes saltier with age as it thrives in the brine. Norton says, “for the same reasons it can tolerate salt it’s actually good for you unless you get the salt content way up there.”

Will these sea beans replace all the food we eat?

Of course not. And they aren’t the solution to our flood problems either.

“We’re not going to get rid of sea level rise with saltwater agriculture but we’re going to have some kind of hopeful story that it isn’t just a problem for us to just build walls against. We can use it to build habitats and jobs and food,”  says Norton.

Norton is expanding out of the lab and into a new facility called Heron Farms in February where he’ll continue to grow salicornia for local chefs. He joins other farmers and scientists who are actively developing new, smarter ways to grow more, using less water,  in a smaller footprint. A footprint that is shrinking day by day due to urbanization and sea level rise while populations grow.

Salty sea beans might not be the solution but it’s certainly making use of some of the problems impacting agriculture. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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