A team led by Matthew Gilliham, of the University of Adelaide, found that adding a gene to durum wheat, through non-genetic modification techniques, helps remove sodium that is carried from roots to the leaves.
This allows the crop to be grown in salty soils or with water normally too saline to be used for irrigation.
Durum wheat is used for making pasta, couscous and cereal, and is usually more salt-sensitive than bread wheat.
“This work is significant as salinity already affects over 20% of the world's agricultural soils, and salinity poses an increasing threat to food production due to climate change,” Gilliham wrote in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
The new strain of durum could soon help farmers in northeastern Japan, where last year’s tsunami salted vast tracts of farmland to the point they can no longer support conventional rice cultivation.