18 July 2019
Cultivation Of Barren Land With Seawater Is An Idea Worth Its Salt
During a childhood spent moving from western and southern Africa to Asia and back again, Yanik Nyberg recalls that the effects of climate change were already very visible.
“My father worked in aid development, my mother was a German diplomat and every four years we would move on to the next place,” he explains. “I grew up in Senegal and went to high school in Vietnam. Desertification, famine – all of it was there, all of it looped back to the environment and the way the climate was changing. It made sense to me that it was all linked.”
Fast forward a decade and Nyberg is studying law at the University of Aberdeen. “I watched a video about a man who turned an Eritrean desert green by flooding it with sea water,” he explains. “That was the ‘jumping off point’ for me. It was a simple idea that solved so many problems at once – it helps carbon capture, fights climate change, creates valuable wetland eco systems from degraded land on our coasts, creates jobs and provides food.”
The 24-year-old, who lives in Glasgow, adds: “I knew right away it was what I wanted to do.”
Nyberg is the founder of Seawater Solutions, a multi-award-winning Scottish start-up company. By developing a number of ways to grow salt-tolerant crops (such as salicornia and aster) on degraded coastal land for food and bio-energy production, he is revolutionising farming here in Scotland and abroad.
Modern agriculture and climate change have resulted in farmland being degraded and made useless. “Around the world, more than 13% of land has been degraded. If we grow salt-tolerant plants in these areas, we can produce enough food to feed the world and can produce substantial amounts of bio-fuels.”
The company’s first projects are diverse: the UK’s first salt water farm in Ayrshire and an integrated aquaculture pilot farm in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, which has introduced saline crops into existing shrimp farms, mitigating pollution.
Projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Senegal are next and Nyberg hopes more will follow. “The Ayrshire farm is our flagship UK project,” he explains. “We are using renewable solar irrigation systems that irrigate coastal farms with nutrient-rich seawater, naturally fertilising saline crops without the need for chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
“So instead of potatoes, our partners introduce high-value crops such as samphire and sea lavender by replicating the wetland environments where they naturally occur. This creates natural defences along Scotland’s coastlines that tackle erosion, storm surges, marine pollution, and threats from rising sea-levels.”
The company is also working with Scottish Natural Heritage and local wildlife trusts to introduce plants which can ‘take away’ pollution and create places for insects, birds and sea creatures to thrive.
Nyberg adds: “I wanted to look at how this could be applied to different areas around the world. In Vietnam, for example, the shrimp industry is hugely polluting and I wanted to negate the need for chemicals. The plants we are using bioremediate, they filter out the waste and chemicals themselves. “We’re conducting market research into other uses for our plants, such as animal fodder, oils for cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, and vegetarian food supplements for a growing market in South Asia.”
The company has launched a pilot trial in Sri Lanka, where hundreds of thousands of hectares of arable land have been destroyed because of rising sea-levels and the lasting impacts of the destructive tsunami that affected many countries in South Asia.
Nyberg spent a year planning to launch the company during his Masters degree in environmental engineering at Strathclyde University. “I wanted to look at how we could apply this to areas around the world,” he explains. “That year at Strathclyde was perfect as it helped me to understand how I was going to do it. I’m very grateful for the support I’ve had from Strathclyde and from the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Entrepreneur Accelerator programme, which was invaluable.”
The programme, funded by RBS, provides benefits such as 1:1 coaching, access to business mentors and legal and technical advice from members. Nyberg is growing his staff – currently, there are four, supported by a team of interns working on research and development. “We all grew up together, mainly in Vietnam and somehow found each other again,” he smiles.
“We will be recruiting over the next few months and I am keen to collaborate with other like-minded start-ups too, for example in aquaculture.” He adds: “I spend a lot of time travelling around the country raising awareness of what we are trying to do, in the hope of inspiring others to do the same. I’m desperate to bang the drum and get more people to know about this.
“Salt water is really the only tangible solution we have if we want to tackle what is happening to the environment – tree planting takes too long to get results, maybe a decade or more. We can get a
result in one year.
“It will take academics and businesses and governments working together to make it happen but salt water really is our most valuable asset in the fight against climate change.”
The Herald’s Climate for Change initiative supports efforts being made by the Scottish Government with key organisations and campaign partners. Throughout the year we will provide a forum in The Herald newspaper, online at herald.scotland.com and in Business HQ magazine, covering news and significant developments in this increasingly crucial area.