By Avigayil Kadesh
More than 7,000 foreign visitors from 115 countries will converge on Tel Aviv May 15-17 to find out the newest approaches and inventions to grow better crops, flowers and even fish and dairy cows. Agritech Israel 2012, the 18th International Agricultural Exhibition, is the go-to event for reps from 200 companies along with potential customers from North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
By now it’s a cliché, but nevertheless as true as ever, that since the establishment of the state of Israel, its pioneers and entrepreneurs have miraculously succeeded in turning the desert green. Out of sheer necessity because of its location in one of the world’s most arid regions, Israel’s agriculture sector has turned out one advanced solution after another, revolutionizing concepts in irrigation, recycling, crop storage, drought and disease resistance, biological pest control, and purification and reuse of wastewater for the thirsty needs of agriculture.
So significant is this expo that its organizers initiated a three-day press junket for 28 select journalists from countries such as Kenya, China, Spain, Australia, Turkey and Ukraine, in order to whet their appetite for innovations spearheaded by Israel’s agricultural industries. The Ministry for Industry, Trade and Labor supported the tour in cooperation with the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Agriculture and Rural Development and the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute.
The reporters and bloggers visited a variety of projects involving irrigation methods, research and development, desert agriculture, vineyards, international agricultural cooperation and dairy farming, and met with industrialists and academics.
Israel has always shared its accumulated experience with the rest of the world, making it a logical location for a world-renowned agricultural exhibition and conference. Here’s an overview of just a few of the cutting-edge products and research coming out of this tiny desert country.
Greening the desert in ‘greener’ ways
The Central and Northern Arava Valley is part of a larger Arava region situated along 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) stretching from the Dead Sea in the north to the southern city of Eilat on the Red Sea coast. This arid strip of land varies in width between three and 10 kilometers as it winds from the mountains of the Negev highlands in the west to the Edom mountains of Jordan in the east.
This is the setting where, in 1986, Central and Northern Arava Research and Development initiated a series of R&D projects. Today they are active in seven agricultural villages -- Neot-HaKikar, Ein-Tamar, Paran, Idan, Hatzeva, Ein-Yahav and Tzofar -- and Ein-Hatzeva, a private farm. The original goal was to serve the development needs of the regional agriculture and farmers in officially declared high-priority areas along the Israeli borders.
But the effect has been much, much broader. Largely as a result of the R&D activities, by 2007 the Arava was the source of about 60 percent of total Israeli exports of fresh vegetables and about 15% of its ornamentals export total.
Concentrating on seven sectors -- vegetables, ornamentals, plant protection, orchards, organic agriculture, fishery and produce quality -- Arava R&D gathers the know-how of farmers, extension service staff and researchers, who decide together on priorities and oversee operations at two experimental stations: Yair Station near Hatzeva and Zohar Station near Neot-HaKikar. The first is named after the late Yair Guron, who was among the founders of Arava R&D and its first director; the second after Yehuda Zohar, one of the pioneers of Israel’s famous drip irrigation system back in the 1960s.
Results of their research are shared with the 600 or so farmers of the Arava through meetings, Internet newsletters, lectures and trips.
Director Aylon Gadiel will be explaining the latest developments to visitors at Agritech, too. He says one of the top priorities for Israeli agricultural innovation is making the best use of scarce water resources.
“We do a lot of projects with water usage and everything having to do with irrigation, because we’re in an area that is not connected to the national water carrier and all the water we have is saline,” he explains.
“We have to do a lot of research to give answers to growers who are seeking to make better use of water with the quality we have right now. It’s irrigation and fertilization together, or what we call ‘fertigation,’ which is complicated to do with saline water. We also work with desalinated water in small plants we use for research, including a new one that works on a solar basis.”
Fertigation is an evolving field that will require new types of equipment currently being testing at Arava R&D. “We are always looking for new methods within our limitations,” says Gadiel, and as soon as they’re up and running, Israel sends experts to other countries to introduce these advances as it did -- and continues to do -- with drip irrigation. Water scarcity and purity is not only an Israeli concern, after all.
Reducing pesticide and energy use
Growing global demands for more healthfully grown produce drives another major area of research in Israel.
Arava R&D addresses this in its work with the cultivated area of its region, which amounts to about 35,000 dunams (8,650 acres) consisting mainly of vegetables and flowers raised protectively in greenhouses and shadehouses.
“We deal with a lot of issues involving plant protection because we produce vegetables for export all over the world, and they have to meet many food safety standards including using biological pest control methods,” says Gadiel.
“This is the basis for ongoing research. All our departments together are trying to give farmers solutions for everyday problems and also develop new crops and technologies for the future to improve yield and quality.”
Two examples of current Arava R&D projects include developing hardier seed varieties in cooperation with seed companies; and finding an entirely new type of plastic covering for greenhouses.
Gadiel explains why the material of the covering is such a crucial concern. “Because of the high price of energy, conventional methods of heating greenhouses are too expensive, so we are testing a new system that will enable us to save about 70-80% of the cost of the energy now used for heating greenhouses,” he says. “It’s even possible that a new plastic would make enough of a difference so growers would not have to use heating at all.”
The main cash crop in the Arava is peppers, which require less manual labor, and there are also tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, melons, watermelons, table grapes, herbs, dates and fresh-cut flowers.
And though it’s not an edible export, a growing addition to this bounty is ornamental fish, says Gadiel – in particular, the very sought-after clownfish made famous by the movie Finding Nemo.
“Today, most of the world’s commerce surrounding marine ornamental fish comes from illegal hunting,” he reveals. “The market is glutted with illegally transferred products. We have developed a protocol for a new species of ornamental fish grown in captivity without affecting the environment. Our Nemo fish is already commercialized and other varieties are in different stages of research at our R&D station.”
Gadiel says that Arava R&D’s primary focus is people. “We do agriculture in the desert, so you can say we’re fighting desertification, but more than that we have created a self-supporting, living community in the desert. Many people come from Africa and Asia to see our agritech, and we participate in MASHAV [Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation] courses all over the world. We show them how we took a piece of desert and made it bloom.”
Separating pomegranate seeds, and lots more
The ruby-red, seed-filled pomegranate fruit has become a much in-demand “superfood” around the world as more people hear about its many health benefits. Pomegranates have always grown prolifically in Israel, where they are one of the biblical seven species.
Unlike most other fruit, however, it’s the juicy seeds (known botanically as arils) that pack the nutritional punch. And though the whole fruit is beautiful to look at, extracting the seeds at home, and especially for makers of pomegranate juice and fresh packaged seeds for salads, is a labor-intensive and messy business.
At Agritech, Avner Galili of the Israeli company Juran will be demonstrating the ArilSystem, Juran’s automated system for rapidly extracting pomegranate arils in commercial quantities.
Where it usually takes a full eight-hour shift for one worker to take out the seeds from 55 pounds of pomegranates, ArilSystem’s most powerful model can handle up to nearly 4,000 pounds of fruit in just one hour. Its smallest model can separate the seeds from more than 1,320 pounds. The machinery is operated by two to four workers who never touch the arils. That makes the finished product more hygienic and significantly extends its shelf life.
ArilSystem also separates out the tough peel and inner membranes, a particularly important selling point for the beverage industry since the tannins in pomegranate membranes add a bitter taste to the juice.
“Pomegranate is an evolving product worldwide,” Galili says. “Juran is the world leader, using a patent developed mutually by us and the Volcani Institute-Agricultural Research Organization,” an agency of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
“We believe the only way to keep the pomegranate sector profitable is by industrializing it -- fresh-cutting, juicing, drying and freezing. Juran supplies all of the needed equipment and technology for doing it.”
General Manager Galili says the ArilSystem has quickly become one of the company’s best-selling solutions, along with automated packing-house systems and dehydrators.
In business for more than 45 years, Juran designs and manufactures innovative machinery for agriculture and the food industry to streamline operations and revolutionize tedious processes such as picking, packing and sorting.
Among its products are watermelon de-seeders; tree girdlers (devices that peel away a ring of the outer bark to increase the productivity of fruit trees); unmanned, sensor-guided greenhouse vehicles that can plant, tie, pick and convey produce faster and more safely than humans workers can; flock-management systems for chick hatcheries; sorting and cleaning systems for produce-packing houses; and juicers, freezers, dehydrators, ovens and dryers for the food industry, restaurants and hotels.
Juran also markets its non-toxic, environment friendly anti-corrosion coating material for food-handling machinery; and filtration, reclamation and recycling solutions for industrial wastewater.
This unique Israeli technology is sold to customers on five continents, including in countries such as Egypt and Turkey. Diplomatic tensions don’t have to get in the way of business. “Indeed it is challenging, but I try to keep out of political issues -- if the other side is negative, I never push. If he is positive, we always find the technical ways to create business,” says Galili.
Helpful tobacco, re-scented flowers, a cure for malaria
The many solutions featured at Agritech are the result of years of research and development. It goes without saying that much more is on the drawing boards of various Israeli facilities dealing with agriculture technology.
Prof. Aharon Friedman, dean of the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes just a few of the recently commercialized innovations developed at the Rehovot campus, which was established in 1942.
Breakthroughs that sail successfully through testing at the campus then get patented and readied for the global marketplace through the university’s tech-transfer arm, Yissum Research Development Company.
“When we speak of innovations that can be applied to industry, we are speaking of scientists’ ability to develop methodologies that can be used in agriculture and elsewhere,” says Friedman by way of introduction.
One example of this crossover is plant physiologist Oded Shoseyov’s method of engineering tobacco plants to produce inexpensive and plentiful collagen for biomedical purposes. Friedman calls this one of the serial inventor’s “most colorful achievements.”
Human collagen is in great demand, mostly for medical procedures such as joint reconstruction and tissue grafting in burn victims, and to a lesser extent in the cosmetics industry. Obtaining collagen from a plant source is ideal because there is no chance of contamination by human viruses.
Two plant physiologists on campus, Sasha Weinstein and Danny Zamir, are attempting to reintroduce fragrance into flowers that lost their scent through selective breeding for hardiness, ease of harvesting and packaging. Zamir is working with roses, Weinstein with petunias.
“Sasha’s also working with malaria,” says Friedman. “Malaria is one of the most devastating diseases in the world. There are anti-malarial drugs, but the one most prevalent is produced from a very finicky plant. Sasha isolated the genes responsible for this drug and introduced them into fungi and other plants that are easy to cultivate. It looks promising.”
Another Hebrew University scientist, Alexander Vainstein, is involved in a project that has elements of both Shoseyov’s and Weinstein’s work. He has genetically altered tobacco to make it produce an effective compound for fighting drug-resistant malaria. This, too, is being commercialized through Yissum as a possible remedy for millions of people whose lives are endangered by the disease.
Smells like a winner
Hebrew University seed scientists have several projects going in collaboration with seed companies in Israel. One of them tackles a garlicky problem.
Ordinarily, garlic must be grown from tubers and there is no way to guarantee pollination, Friedman explains. But researcher Haim Rabinowitch has managed to develop a technology to produce garlic seeds for the first time.
“Obviously it will be easier to sell seeds than tubers, and cheaper, too,” Friedman points out.
Meanwhile, Hebrew University soil scientist Yael Mishael is developing a new model approach for biological pest control.
The typical method for killing weeds in agricultural fields is to spray with herbicide. However, toxins from these agents often make their way into the food chain from residues on the crops and also via groundwater.
“Yael is developing two aspects,” says Friedman. “One localizes the toxin to the weed using clay absorbents as binders; the other uses toxins that biodegrade very quickly. Her work will allow farmers to use herbicides that are environmentally safe.”
This entire angle of environmental responsibility is what modern agriculture is all about, stresses Friedman. “There is no room for abusing natural resources anymore,” he states.
Another path of environmentally conscious research at the university uses oyster mushrooms to turn inedible, non-biodegradable plant residues from cotton harvesting and olive oil production into nutritious feed for cattle.
“[Environmental microbiologist] Yitzhak Hadar has discovered that fungi such as the oyster mushroom can potently live on the cotton straw and olive pits and skins,” Friedman explains. “The fungi detoxify the waste and make it edible for ruminants -- and the mushroom itself is edible, too. Now farmers can grow mushrooms using compost from cotton and olives, and when the mushrooms are harvested the substrate can be made into feed for cows.”
Preserving precious H20
Israel leads the world in wastewater reclamation, says Friedman. “We are the only country that recycles 70 percent of its sewage water for irrigation. We really try to revitalize as much water as possible.”
Some of the latest water purification methods are pioneered by Hebrew University water scientist Avner Adin. They all hinge on various forms of filtering, a technique that Friedman says is easy to understand but hard to implement. Filters easily get clogged, and when they do, they guzzle energy.
“Ideally, water filters wouldn’t ever get clogged. Techniques for filtering water must get cheaper and better,” he says. “In addition, even after the solids are removed, many residual compounds remain, such as pharmaceutical leftovers from animals or humans, which can cause issues. [Soil chemist] Benny Chefetz has gotten a large research grant to devote to identifying these substances and removing them from reclaimed water so that it may become drinkable.”
Finally, Friedman speaks of a significant advance by aquaculture researcher Jaap Van Rijn, related to raising fish in artificial ponds.
“The issue here is saving water. When you grow a lot of fish in a small tank, you must remove excrement but in the process you waste a lot of water. Jaap’s technique uses beads of bacteria to purify and recycle the water continuously. As a result, fish can be raised at high densities in confined basins, losing water only to evaporation, about 5%. This innovation is already in use in fish farms in the Hudson River area of New York as well as in Israel,” says Friedman.
Lending a hand to other countries
One of the presenters at Agritech will be Haim Tager, director of training at the CINADCO Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation, based in Rishon LeZion as part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Yuval Elazar, head of special training activities, will also be there to demonstrate the latest irrigation and fertilization technologies coming out of Israel.
As the professional affiliate of MASHAV, CINADCO implements Israel's agricultural cooperation policies with more than 140 developing nations. Its activities focus mainly on human capacity-building, transfer of knowledge and professional support for agricultural development projects. It offers training in Israel and abroad conducted in Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Russian, covering topics including water resources management, irrigation and fertilization, sustainable market oriented agriculture, intensive livestock and dairy production.
High-tech dairy farming solutions from Israel are another area that will be highlighted at the Agritech expo. Representatives from Hof Hasharon Dairy Farm, SAE Afikim and SCR Precise Dairy Farming will demonstrate their advanced systems for herd management, monitoring and feeding, which are in use across the globe.
Afikim’s AfiMilk subsidiary recently taught two visiting groups of Chinese dairy farmers and dairy experts how to use AfiMilk technologies to increase milk production, improve efficiency and take care of the cows in the dairy farm and during milking sessions.
Now considered China’s most efficient dairy farm, it serves as a training center for thousands of dairy producers in China and neighboring countries. AfiMilk equipment is installed at 105 milking parlors in China, and last year, a new dairy company in Vietnam signed a five-year contract with the Israeli company to set up its ambitious dairy farm project aimed to boost the consumption of milk in that Asian country.
“Israeli dairy farming is highly considered all over world for its high production per cow,” explains Pinhas Gur, head of professional services at AfiMilk.