Tucson, Ariz. — Halophyte - which sounds like the latest unbreakable luggage - is a type of plant that may one day reduce world hunger.
Able to survive in salty soil, halophyte-type bushes have often been ignored or even jeered at by man over the centuries, the Rodney Dangerfields of the plant world.
Today, however, this vegetation is being studied by researchers at the University of Arizona here as a possible foodstuff. Pickleweed, saltwort, and palmer's grass (all are types of halophyte) may not only show up on family buffets one day, the hardy vegetation may also hold the key to opening up the desert to agriculture, scientists say.
Similar research has gone on for several years elsewhere, such as in Israel. But scientists here believe they have developed the most wide-ranging array of edible halophyte plants.
By coming up with a way to grow edible, salt-resistant plants, they hope to use one of the world's most abundant resources - saltwater - to irrigate and grow food in vast stretches of what is now dry, barren earth.
''We are within three to five years of having major farms using sea water irrigation,'' says Carl N. Hodges, director of the Environmental Research Laboratory (ERL), which is carrying out the halophyte research.
If the researchers are successful, the impact could be enormous. There are more than 22,000 miles of desert seacoast around the world. Much of it lies in regions suffering chronic food shortages, such as Africa. Another billion acres of desert lies over brackish aquifers now too salty to support conventional farming methods.
A half million more acres of potential farmland are lost each year to ''desert creep.'' In the United States alone, one-twelfth of the continental land area - an area bigger than Texas - stretches over ground water too saline for most traditional crops.
''We could probably feed another one billion people if we could utilize these areas of the world to grow food,'' says Dr. Merle Jensen, an ERL horticulturist.
An arm of the University of Arizona, ERL employs about 100 researchers, most of whom work in a cluster of small buildings and greenhouses in a dusty expanse near the Tucson airport.
Funded mainly by foundations and private industry, ERL is working on projects ranging from new designs for passive solar homes to building a prototype desert farm of the future. But much of the lab's work is food-related.
ERL researchers, for instance, have been perfecting a way to raise shrimp in sea water at a farm in Hawaii, an operation soon to become commercial. Work is also being done here in hydroponics - growing plants without soil by using nutrient-rich solutions to feed them.
But perhaps the lab's most far-reaching research involves the halophytes. Traditional ways of trying to introduce agriculture to arid regions have focused on either removing salt from sea water, or else using genetic breeding to create conventional crops hardy enough to tolerate saline water.
Instead, scientists here have gone directly to the source of the problem to find an answer: brackish bogs and swamps. After several years of scouring far corners of the world, they have found a variety of halophyte bushes that have survived in briny areas, but which, except for a few Indian tribes, have usually been overlooked for their food potential.
Today fields of saltwort, saltwater bush, and other strains are growing at an ERL experiment station in Mexico, irrigated with sea water from the Gulf of California.
Initially, scientists say the salt-resistant plants will probably be used as forage for cattle. But eventually they expect it to show up on family menus.
ERL has already produced a cereal made from halophyte plants, which look like a bowl of pebbles but taste like bran flakes. Dr. Jensen says spicing the cereal up with chili powder makes it a ''really good'' snack.
Still, some obstacles remain to large-scale halophyte growing in the desert. One is the sheer cost of irrigation. Another is that removing some salt from the plants is costly but necessary to make them more palatable. Harvesting crops irrigated with sea water can cause corrosion problems with machinery. And a greater variety of halophyte-related foods will have to be produced if they are ever to be integrated into centuries-old eating patterns.
Yet scientists here think the day of desert farming is near. They have had a few inquiries from Middle East countries (such as Saudi Arabia), which have the vast stretches of arid land and enough petrodollars to launch such a project.