Introduction to Economics                                 Lesson 34 / 05




Australia is a dominant or major player in many industries, both primary and non-primary.  Many are well known such as wheat, wool, coal and iron ore.  Others are less well known such as sporting goods and equipment, pipes and agricultural and mining machinery and expertise.  One such lesser-known industry in which Australia is dominant is salt exporting.


The salt industry is one of the world’s most important industries, as well as being one of its oldest.  Salt is the most widely used industrial product; virtually everyone uses it.  Australia is the leading exporter of salt.  More than 120 countries produce salt.  The biggest producer is the USA.  Australia is far from being the biggest producer but it exports about 90% of its annual production of about 10 million tons.  Together with Mexico, the second largest exporter, it accounts for 41% of salt exported.  This goes largely to Japan, the world’s leading importer and to east and southeast Asia.



Salt use predates recorded history.  It features prominently in the history of early civilizations.  The oldest known treatise on pharmacology, published in China in about 2700 BC, makes many references to the use of salt.  Egyptian art of 1450 BC depicts salt making, there are numerous references to it in the Bible and it played a major part in the history of classical Greece and Rome.


The Industrial Revolution made wide scale salt production possible.  Previously the limited availability of salt was a constraining factor in population growth and development.  A supply of salt was vital for a society’s survival and growth.



There are a variety of methods of producing salt, some dating back thousands of years.  They include solar evaporation of seawater or brine in salt pans; evaporation by boiling of seawater or brine in clay moulds; mining of rock salt or modern vacuum evaporation in enclosed vats.  Brine itself was obtained from naturally occurring sources such as wells, lakes or river estuaries or extracted by drilling.  By 400 AD the Chinese were drilling twin holes into salt deposits up to a thousand metres deep, forcing fresh water down one and extracting brine from the other using bamboo pipes.


 Pipes made from hollowed out tree trunks were also used to move brine.  The fuel used for boiling varied.  It includes peat, coal, timber and in Japan seaweed.  Round some traditional salt making centres trees all but disappeared.



Since salt is a necessity, societies without their own source were obliged to trade for it to survive or prosper.  Coastal Greek city-states traded salt with inland ones, particularly for slaves. [The purported basis for the phrase of a person being worth or not worth his or her salt.]  The seeming explanation as to why, in ancient times, thriving centres were located in desolate climes, such as Jericho and other cities clustered around the Dead Sea or similar salt lakes or arid regions, was salt, which could be harvested or quarried there.  In wet climes, the salt dissolves.  Inland, salt was carried on boats on navigable rivers or by pack trains of animals such as camels, horses or mules, sometimes exceeding a 1000 in number.


From about 500 BC to about 700 AD it would appear that tides in Europe rose, perhaps by as much as 2 metres.  This had the effect of wiping out many tidal flats and salt pans.  Inland salt deposits became relatively more important.  From about 700 AD onwards tides appear to have fallen causing coastal flats to emerge and sea salt became again more available.      


Salt As Money

Salt has most of the desirable characteristics necessary for its use as money.  In various parts of the world, even in recent times, salt cakes were made, sometimes stamped with a hallmark, to be used as money.  The early Romans were particularly conscious of the importance of salt.  Major roads [in Latin, via saleria or salt roads] were built to salt centres along which the legions were despatched to procure or secure salt.  The soldiers originally obtained their pay as such in salt, giving rise to the word salary. [sal is salt in Latin].


Monopolies And Taxes

As a universal necessity, salt has had great appeal to governments to impose monopolies and levy taxes.  The Gabelle, the French salt tax was a major factor in the French Revolution.  The Indian equivalent of the Boston Tea Party is the Salt March.  In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi and 78 followers led a march 241 miles through Gujarat to the coastal salt pans in defiance of the colonial governments monopoly and tax on salt.  This year major celebrations were held in India to mark its 75th anniversary.



Many placenames and modern English words are derived from the word in various languages for salt such as Salzburg in Austria and Tuzla [from the Turkish tuz for salt] in Bosnia Herzgovinia and words such as sauce and sausage.


Current Industry Outlook

Presently the major production of salt is for chemicals, particularly for use in making plastics.  Other major uses include for food processing and its use in cooking for flavour and taste.  Salt is also used as a water softener or conditioner for bathing and cleaning and for preventing fouling in pipes and heaters, as animal food in agriculture and [particularly in the Northern Hemisphere] for de-icing of roads.


As a large bulk, low value commodity, exporting salt poses problems.  Presently the Murray-Darling Basin offers considerable scope for increased salt production.  However the rising value of the Australian dollar, increasing transport costs and demurrage charges in crowded Chinese ports are all negatives.  There is currently probably also a worldwide oversupply of salt.


                                                                  David Sharp

                                                                     October 2005  



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