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Red Heifers, Mint Potatoes and the New Wheat: The Future of Food in Israel

By Sarah Friedman

BEIT DAGAN, Israel (Dec. 7, 2012) — By 2050, agricultural yields will have to increase by 50 to 70 percent in the developed world and 100 percent in the developing world to meet the food needs of the 9.3 billion people on the planet, according to Prof. Ada Rafaeli, associate director of Israel's Agricultural Research Organization, the research arm of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. The organization is marking its 90th anniversary this week with a conference on the coming world food crisis.


As a relatively isolated country with limited land and water, Israel faces aggravated concerns over sustaining its growing population as climate change and the global population increase squeeze world food supply. But Israel is also a technologically advanced member of a global community facing complex, shared challenges. Rafaeli said that the Israeli government is monitoring the constraints of the global food supply chain and aims to become a live laboratory for developing solutions that can be applied globally. Current research at the Agricultural Research Organization is an encouraging start.


Pomegranate heifers


Among many impressive technologies used to improve cow health and milk production at the Agricultural Research Organization’s dairy, the simplest and most ecologically beneficial may be its innovative use of pomegranate peel, an organic byproduct. Pomegranate peels are typically buried in the desert at cost to the juice producers, according to Dr. Joshuah Miron, head of the organization’s Department of Ruminant Science. The peels, which the department receives from a pomegranate processor for free, make up 10 percent of the diet of cows who eat them, replacing part of the 30 percent of feed normally comprised of imported grain and soybean.


Everything is measured in the dairy. To keep track of individuals’ health, electronic tags track each cow’s daily feedings, steps, minutes ruminating and electrolyte levels in milk. Constant monitoring and subsequent changes to improve conditions has combined with selective breeding of females to make Israeli milk production number-one in the world per cow, with each producing an average of more than 40 kilograms of milk daily during the 300-day milking season. That adds up to more than 12,000 kilograms annually. By contrast, cows in the United States produce about 10,000 kilograms each year.


Mint potatoes


When it comes to vegetables, one pioneering technique is fumigating mint oil into potato storage, which burns the potato eyes and prevents them from sprouting.


“The main goal of this department is to cheat nature,” said Prof. Elazar Fallik, head of the Institute of Postharvest and Food Sciences, which develops techniques to help farmers maintain produce quality after harvest.


Innovative rinsing, bagging and storing technologies extend the shelf life of produce, enabling fruits and vegetables to be stored for longer while retaining nutritional value and aesthetic appeal. The preservation techniques mean that produce also can be sold out of season and transported by sea instead of air, which produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than shipping by air and is cheaper for exporters too.


“Our main market is Europe,” Dr. Hinanit Koltai of the Department of Ornamental Horticulture said via e-mail. “We respect their policy of avoiding transgenic crops.”


Koltai’s lab works on improving crop performance through controlled breeding and genetic engineering. She and her researchers manipulate plant development with synthesized natural hormones. One current project investigating hormonal effects on root development aims to improve roots’ ability to exploit available resources such as water and phosphates. The goal is to increase yield while decreasing the use of fertilizer, which can pollute water sources.


Italian wheat from Israel


Dr. Uri Kushnir of the Department of Agronomy and Natural Resources describes the challenge his lab faces: "The browning of the Green Revolution.”


The Green Revolution, an arguably misguided mid-20th century attempt by the developed world to improve crop yields in developing countries succeeded in commercially cultivating several high-yielding wheat varieties worldwide. But at what cost? The new varieties replaced local wheats and eroded the global wheat gene pool. Genetically homogenous wheat is more widely vulnerable to pests, disease and climate change. It's also limiting scientists' ability to develop new wheat varieties.


“It’s an obstacle for further improvement,” said Kushnir. “Genetic improvement is based on genetic variability of the gene pool.”


Kushnir’s lab is researching wild Israeli species that are wheat relatives, looking for “genes of economic importance” that can be bred into wheat through cross-fertilization. One successful cultivar, named Bar Nir, was created by substituting wheat cytoplasm with wild cytoplasm. It produces the highest-index gluten among Israeli wheat and overcomes the general opposite correlation between yield and protein in wheat, producing high-protein wheat even in high-yielding conditions, Kushnir said.


Other projects in his lab include developing a quick-ripening and therefore drought-resistant wheat strain and engineering a prototype of wheat with triple the number of grains per head. Kushnir is careful to point out that the latter will not generate triple the typical yield, but that "even if its increase will be even 30 percent or even 10 percent, it will (have) far-reaching implications.”


The lab already has made several important advances by using cross-fertilization and cell engineering. In the early 2000s, Kushnir developed a form of durum wheat resistant to P. striiformis, a disease also known as yellow rust, that “has exceptional high-level of pasta quality” and is being grown on a commercial scale in Italy.





Sarah Friedman is a former reporting intern for Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




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