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Biggest UK farming firm express interest in Israeli agricultural expertise
By SHARON UDASIN
05/29/2014
The UK-Israel Tech Hub at the British Embassy in Israel aims to boost economic growth in both countries by partnering British companies with Israeli innovators.
 
An executive from the United Kingdom’s largest farming company is considering partnerships with several Israeli agricultural researchers and firms, following a first-time visit to the country this week.

“Some of those companies very much stood out from the rest as having great technical solutions, which if we could adopt would provide benefit to our business,” Keith Norman, technical director of Velcourt Ltd., told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday evening.

During his visit, Norman met 35 experts from Israel’s agritech industry, from 13 companies and two academic institutes – the Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan, near Rishon Lezion, and the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot. Norman’s trip was organized by the UK-Israel Tech Hub at the British Embassy, which aims to boost economic growth in both countries by partnering British companies with Israeli innovators.

Velcourt holds 54,000 hectares of farm land and carries out agronomic advisory work for an additional 19,000 hectares, Norman explained.

One company of particular interest to him was Kaiima Bio-Agritech, based in Moshav Sharona in the Lower Galilee, which he said is developing techniques that can transform the chromosomes in wheat plants from six to eight in number – a process that would increase wheat yield.

A second attractive company, the Ra’anana-based Groundwork BioAg, positions soil-borne fungi capable of connecting nutrients in soil with plant root hairs directly on the plant seed, Norman said.

“That was very, very exciting and we’re hoping to get some in the UK in time for sowing to check if the benefits are real,” he said.

A third Israeli technology that Norman is interested in comes from a research lab optimizing spring wheats, to be cultivated instead of winter wheats. Due to the wet spring weather in the UK, Norman said that a particularly attractive element of this Israeli research is the development of wheat plants whose ears are pointing down, allowing for rain runoffs.

Norman said he hopes that the UK and the European Union will eventually consider genetic modification of plants as a more viable option for their food sectors. In addition, he spoke of synthetic biology, which does not involve the importation of genes from other species, but instead fine-tunes the genetics of the crops themselves.

One problem for the global farming sector that concerns Norman is the unpredictability of crop outputs due to climate change and extreme weather events.

“We don’t know what the future weather has in store,” he said. “We do know that the changes are becoming much more extreme and much more regular in their nature.”

At this point, meteorologists cannot provide forecasts that are sufficiently long-term for harvest planning, Norman said.

Norman praised the widespread expertise he found while visiting companies and research laboratories in Israel.

“It was a fascinating visit, quite varied in all the different aspects of crop growing,” he said. “There was a good selection. I’m really hoping we can build on these partnerships and move them forward and get the tech into the UK for evaluation, and move forward if that works in a positive way.”
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