Long before earning the nickname “start-up nation”, Israel was renowned for its innovation in agriculture. As is usually the case, necessity was the mother of invention.
Given the rough desert conditions in much of the country, Israel was forced to create arable land in places where none existed before. Technology was developed to make the most of every drop of water available, to overcome the limitations of dry, often saline soil and to discover ways to increase yield per input for virtually all crops.
Agriculture is both literally and figuratively a growth industry in Israel. In the decade between 2003 and 2012, agricultural exports doubled from $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion. The EU accounts for approximately 40% of this sum.
Today, the challenge facing Israeli agriculture is more market-driven than physical; the need to compete effectively in world markets is just as crucial as the need for efficient land use was in Israel’s pioneering days. It’s not just about drip irrigation anymore. Israel continues to invent, developing not only the infrastructure and machinery for resource-smart cultivation, but the means and methods to improve product quality throughout its life cycle, including post harvest treatment and packaging. Israeli researchers and farmers are also developing new varieties of fresh produce and improving existing exotic fruit to create tastier, healthier and more user-friendly produce. The added value is shared by consumers, farmers and exporters alike.
The Israeli government plays an active role in keeping Israel on the cutting edge. The Institute of Plant Science, one of the six institutes of the Agricultural Research Organization, Volcani Centre (http://www.agri.gov.il/en/home/default.aspx), sees the improvement of the quality and competitiveness of Israeli produce as a primary goal. The Department of Vegetable Sciences is involved in breeding programs based on identifying key genetic markers for disease resistance, pigmentation, product quality, aroma, shelf life, size and shape. Amongst others it focuses on what makes functional food functional: vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids, phytoestrogens and fibres.
Past Volcani Centre innovations include the Galia melon, the Orangetti spaghetti squash, the early season Anna apple and the Goldy zucchini. Volcani has also been the source of more recent offerings, such as the chestnut-like Table Sugar acorn squash commercialized by Origene Seeds (www.origeneseeds.com) and late-season citrus hybrids, such as the virtually seedless Or and Mor easy peelers.
Ben Dor Fruits & Nurseries (www.bendorfruits.com) is a master of the mix and match. Engaged in agriculture since the 1880s, this family enterprise focuses primarily, although not exclusively, on stone fruit. The company cultivates new varieties, produces the seedlings, operates its own orchards, packages and markets its fruit in Israel and around the world. It has already cross-bred numerous varieties of fruit for both consumption and breeding, extending the taste and colour palate (and at times the contours) of peaches, plums, apricots and pears. Its red flesh plums contain high levels of antioxidants. Ben Dor was nominated for the Fruit Logistica Innovation Award in 2013 for its coloured apricots, a new range of juicy, sweet apricots with varied skin and flesh colourings. The company’s mango nectarine has the exotic sweet taste without the mess. Debuting in Israel, South Africa and the UK in 2012, this Ben Dor baby was ten years in the making.
Another 2012 debutant was developed and introduced by Seeds Technologies DM (http://www.seedstec.co.il). The Black Galaxy tomato is as exotic as it sounds. A hybrid between wild and cultured tomatoes, the Black Galaxy gets its dark colour from a pigment similar to one found in blueberries. It may be healthier than the garden-variety tomato as well, since the pigment renders it high in vitamin C and antioxidants.
Zeraim Gadera (www.zeraim.com), a member of the global Syngenta Group, brought to life an innovation many were waiting for – the seedless bell pepper. Easy to snack on and easy to chop, this small pepper looks more like a chilli pepper but is crispy, colourful and sweeter than bell peppers three times its size. It was developed by Zeraim and awarded the 2012 Fruit Logistica Innovation Award.
Another ‘must have’ innovation has been brought to the world by nursery and nursery know-how company, Hishtil (www.hishtil.com). Hishtil’s Long Foot basil tree solves a problem faced by all who enjoy fresh basil in their food – packaged fresh basil has a short shelf life. Potted basil, on the other hand, can be challenging for even the greenest of thumbs. The grafted basil tree, in contrast, is resilient and grows all year round – indoors during winter and outside on the balcony or window sill all summer long. Thanks to its improved survivability, the basil tree provides a steady supply of fresh basil-on-demand and makes an attractive addition to any urban garden.
Other Hishtil retail-targeted offerings include the Tomaccio ™, a plant bred from a wild Peruvian tomato species which bears sugar-sweet fruit. Another option is the easy-to-grow 2-on-1 tomato plant which features two varieties of tomatoes grown on a single vine, perfect for spontaneous eye-catching fresh salads. Through joint ventures and partnerships, Hishtil has established a European presence with nurseries in Italy, Turkey, Greece and most recently, Bosnia and Spain.