Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Linda Gradstein
The Media Line 

Beyond the drip: Israeli agriculture continues to innovate


Untreated potatoes

RISHON LETZION, Israel—Strange things are happening at the Volcani Center in this Tel Aviv suburb. Potatoes sprayed with spearmint oil are not sprouting for months, Granny Smith apples deprived of oxygen stay fresh for more than 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 that’s composed of six separate research institutes.

“We don’t have a lot of land here in Israel and 60 percent of it is desert,” said Ada Rafaeli, the center’s associate director for international cooperation and academic affairs. “But we can provide know-how and innovation for the rest of the world.”

Some Israeli innovations, such as drip irrigation for field crops, 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 center also focuses on improving productivity and yields.

“In 1955, one Israeli farmer could feed 15 people, while in 2007, that same farmer could feed 100 people,” Rafaeli 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, Moshe Lapidot of the center’s institute of plant sciences is raising special tomatoes that can flourish despite being infected with the common yellow leaf virus. Some of the plants look withered and shrunken, while others are thriving.

“All of these plants are infected with the virus that shows up wherever there are tomatoes and dramatically lessens the yield,” said Lapidot. “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.”

In another building, Amnon Lichter, head of the department of post-harvest science of fresh produce, holds up a decaying Granny Smith apple.

“These apples have not been treated and they look brown and unappetizing,” he said. “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.

Potatoes treated with spearmint oil that keeps their skin smooth for a year.

He moves on to two boxes of potatoes, one with unsightly sprouting and one containing potatoes with smooth russet skin. Then he opens a small vial.

“Smell this,” he urged. “It’s spearmint oil, and when rubbed on the potatoes it keeps them from sprouting for almost a year. This replaces the use of chemicals with a natural compound and is being used commercially as well.”

About one-third of food is wasted, said 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.”


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