Strange things are happening at the Volcani Center in a Tel Aviv suburb. Potatoes sprayed with spearmint oil are not sprouting for months, Granny Smith apples deprived of oxygen stay fresh for over a year, and cows are eating less grain and producing more milk.
These are just a few projects at the Agricultural Research Organization, the research arm of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture which houses six separate research institutes.
“We don’t have a lot of land here in Israel and 60% of it is desert,” Ada Rafaeli, the associate director for international cooperation and academic affairs, told The Media Line. “But we can provide know-how and innovation for the rest of the world.”
Some Israeli innovations, like drip irrigation which conserves water, are well-known. But others, like colored netting draped over plants to increase yields, or especially sweet seedless tangerines marketed in Europe are less known. The Institute is also focused on improving productivity and yields.
“In 1955, one Israeli farmer could feed 15 people, while in 2007, that same farmer could feed 100 people,” she said. “Israel is subsistent in vegetables and fruits but we still need to import grain so we’re developing special varieties of grain that are only for animal feed or that contain more protein.”
In a hot and humid greenhouse, Dr. Moshe Lapidot of the Institute of Plant Sciences is growing special strands of tomatoes that can flourish despite being infected with the common tomato yellow leaf virus. Some of the plants look withered and shrunken – others are flourishing.
“All of these plants are infected with the virus which shows up wherever there are tomatoes and dramatically lessens the yield,” Lapidot told The Media Line. “We identified a gene that is resistant to the virus and we introduced the gene into the plant. It took us seven years to find the gene, but today seed companies are looking to buy our tomato plants.”
One-third of food is wastedIn another building on the large campus, Dr. Amnon Lichter, the head of the Department of Postharvest Science of Fresh Produce, holds up a brown, decaying Granny Smith apple.
“These apples have not been treated and they look brown and unappetizing,” he told The Media Line. “Those brown patches called “superficial scalding” can be prevented with insecticides but we’re trying another way.”
That other way is called “controlled suffocation” and it involves keeping the apples in a storage container with no oxygen for a week. The oxygen can be removed using liquid nitrogen. After that, the apples will remain perfectly green for well over a year.
He moves on to two boxes of potatoes – one with unsightly sprouting, and one with smooth russet skin. Then he opens a small vial.
“Smell this,” he urges.
“It’s spearmint oil and when rubbed on the potatoes it keeps them from sprouting for almost a year,” he said. “This replaces the use of chemicals with a natural compound and is being used commercially as well.”
About one-third of food is wasted, says Associate Director Rafaeli, mostly because it goes bad before it can be eaten. Israel is trying to come up with solutions to make food last longer and taste better.
In another room, Lichter opens a black suitcase and takes out an instrument that looks a little like a hand-held microscope.
“This costs more than a car in Israel,” he said with a smile. “But it measures things like firmness of fruit. We scientists like to measure everything.”
Article written by Linda Gradstein
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line