Food / Technology
Salt-tolerant wheat innovation can also improve the rest of the food industry — here’s how
Built on more than eight years of research, OlsAro has put its spotlight on Bangladesh and is now in dialogues to initiate field tests in countries like Argentina, Pakistan, Kenya, and Morocco. After that, it can also mean a competitive advantage for the industry colleagues.
8 Sep 2022

According to FAO, 9% of the land globally and 20-50% of the irrigated land is today salt contaminated according. And the numbers are increasing. 

— This is due to climate change with flooding, cyclones, and more, and bad irrigation practices in absence of fresh water, Elén Faxö, CEO of OlsAro Crop Biotech explains. In the EU, 3 million hectares are today affected by high salinity and increasing, with 1 million hectares affected only in England, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark.

Tell us about OlsAro. What do you do?  

— We’re an agtech startup, working with adapting the large staple crop wheat to climate change and sustainable farming. We’re aiming for food security by increasing domestic farming in food-insecure areas and decreasing the dependence on external factors, such as market fluctuations due to, for instance, conflicts. 

The company’s first innovation is salt-tolerant wheat for Bangladesh. 

— Apart from climate adaption with, for example, drought tolerance we can also go for traits in wheat that support sustainable and regenerative cultivation such as nitrogen efficiency as well as improving nutrition with for instance high fibre, protein, and more.

And how does it work? What makes it salt-tolerant?

— We work with molecular breeding and bioinformatics to develop new varieties that have specific improved properties. For this salt-tolerant wheat, we have proof of concept in the crop, meaning that the wheat has shown to be able to grow on saline soils. To further enhance the breeding path, genetic markers for such traits can be developed to speed up breeding cycles for the development of additional varieties worldwide, says Faxö. She continues:

— It all started with having an exchange with a Bangladeshi researcher at the lab of Gothenburg University. When hearing him express the pressing need of solutions to rising salinity in his home country, professors Olof Olsson and Henrik Aronsson (pictured above) took on the challenge and founded OlsAro. Our innovation and platform are today built on more than eight years of research. 

And how far have you come?

— In Bangladesh, we work with a large seed company reaching more than 10 million farmers with the common and we also have this clear ambition to offer the salt-tolerant wheat variety inclusively, so that is affordable for small-scale farmers. Grounded in promising field results we will in short initiate the formal independent tests that are key to being approved on the variety list (the list that makes crops available for farmers, Ed’s note). This gives us only a few years before a possible market entry.

Before and after harvest.

Except for Bangladesh, Faxö adds, OlsAro is also having additional dialogues to initiate field tests in countries like Argentina, Pakistan, Kenya, and Morocco. 

— To support the scaleup journey, we will open our seed round in short. Ahead, we will continue to strengthen our platform and aim to also be able to look further into additional traits, such as nitrogen efficiency, to decrease the dependence on synthetic fertilizers, and the huge challenge of drought tolerance. Apart from seed companies as customers, we can also work with the food industry to improve specific quality traits for competitive advantage, for instance, improved nutrition or texture.

Interesting! How does that work?

— We can go for quality traits in wheat such as fibre or protein content that could be a competitive advantage for food companies in, for instance, the development of healthy foods, Faxö concludes.

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