Can Israel’s marine agriculture feed the world’s future?

Reps. from 25 countries and a bevy of Israeli marine agriculture start-ups gathered to highlight innovative solutions to traditional agriculture’s shortcomings in the face of climate change.

 The Sea the Future summit. (photo credit: ROTEM LAHAV)
The Sea the Future summit.
(photo credit: ROTEM LAHAV)

On Wednesday, the agriculture ministers of Israel and Bahrain signed a first-of-its-kind joint declaration for the promotion and expansion of cooperation between the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain in the fields of agriculture, livestock and food security.

Also agreed upon were the mutual sharing of knowledge, technology and diverse products to expand agricultural products and improve their production quality.

“The issue of global food security and global food security is occupying us constantly – not only us, but the world. One of the solutions, in our point of view, is the production of food from the sea."

Director General of the Agriculture Ministry Naama Kaufman Fass

The signing took place during the world’s first Sea the Future summit: an Eilat-based event that gathered aquaculture start-ups from throughout Israel along with investors, ministers and other representatives from 25 countries to address the impending issue of global food security in the face of climate change, population growth and decreasing fertile areas for agricultural development.

“Today we took the first step on the path paved by the government’s decision... to turn Eilat into an international research center for food from the sea and the desert,” stated Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Oded Forer.

A global effort to feed the world

 Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Oded Forer (right) and his Bahraini counterpart, Wael Bin Nasser Al Mubarak (left) sign an international agriculture agreement at the Sea the Future summit. (credit: ROTEM LAHAV) Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Oded Forer (right) and his Bahraini counterpart, Wael Bin Nasser Al Mubarak (left) sign an international agriculture agreement at the Sea the Future summit. (credit: ROTEM LAHAV)

The summit’s establishment follows the government’s decision to launch a multi-year plan to develop Eilat and the Eilat region into a national and international center for the production of food from the sea and the desert, at a cost of approximately NIS 170 million.

“Among the challenges over the next decade, we are touching on one of the most important points for humanity. Food security is our main challenge. The countries of the world cannot grow food as they used to in the past, in accordance with the changing climate and in light of global warming. To do so, we need breeding methods and new technologies,” said Forer.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej noted the importance of Israel’s global collaboration on the issue. “Who would have believed that we would be sitting here in Israel with partners from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. For me it is a dream come true. This is the key to security and stability in our region,” he said.

“The next step is to see all the countries around: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt – and the Palestinians. Without the Palestinian side, we cannot move anywhere, because they are part of our region. I believe we can do it together,” Frej concluded.

“Among the challenges over the next decade, we are touching on one of the most important points for humanity. Food security is our main challenge."

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Oded Forer

Indeed, many of Israel’s neighbors stand to benefit from some form of cooperation in this field. Dr. Alexandra Troyano-Groux, Regional Agricultural Consul for Lebanon, Iraq, Iran & Egypt, at the French Embassy in Lebanon, noted that “Iran has big plans for the field of aquaculture in the country.”

“Their goal is to increase the fishing industry to a production of 100 million tons per year by 2023 with the help of cage breeding along the coastline. In Lebanon… the main goal is to ensure sanitary conditions, consistent electricity and wastewater treatment in the country,” she said.

Let them all eat fish, probably

In an interview, biologist and the summit’s director, Roni Sussman, explained the importance of developing the world’s ability to produce water-grown protein sources. “Looking at the future, by 2050 the human population is expected to reach 10 billion, and all these people need to eat something. If we keep producing food like we do today, we won’t have enough land or drinking water to do that – we need to find alternatives, and aquaculture is the perfect alternative,” she said.

“Today, 80% of the land used for agriculture is growing food for our food. Classic agriculture not only uses a lot of land, it uses a lot of drinking water and it pollutes the land that it’s using, because you have to use the pesticides and supplements,” Sussman continued.

In addition, traditional agriculture’s ratio of yield-per-resources-committed presents a hefty loss. Sussman noted that “to grow one kilo of beef, you invest seven kilos of food.”

Similar exchange rates apply to pork (around 4 kg. of food per 1 kg. of yield), and poultry (a 2-to-1 ratio). Presenting itself as one of the greatest returns on resource investment is fish, which swims at the forefront of the pack. “With efficient aquaculture, to grow one kilo of fish you invest one kilo of food. The numbers are crazy,” Sussman said.

Enjoy a seaweed salad while you're at it

“[Algae] is interesting because it’s a basic material that you can use to develop a lot of other things. You can use seaweed or algae to grow protein. You can use seaweed as a material to help fish multiply – this is also a place where Israel has a lot of research and it’s very, very interesting."

 Director General of the Agriculture Ministry Naama Kaufman Fass

Vegetarians concerned about a fish-dense future can also rejoice: the buck doesn’t only stop at sea-borne critters with faces. The production of protein-rich algae is also a huge focus of start-ups in Israel hoping to contribute to the burgeoning aquaculture space.

Director-General of the Agriculture Ministry Naama Kaufman Fass elaborated on the important role that algae production plays not only as a food source, but as a source of valuable compounds and ingredients that can be used in pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and a host of other applications.

“[Algae] is interesting because it’s a basic material that you can use to develop a lot of other things. You can use seaweed or algae to grow protein. You can use seaweed as a material to help fish multiply – this is also a place where Israel has a lot of research and it’s very, very interesting,” she said.

Climate commotion, meet food from the ocean

At the conclusion of our interview, Kaufman Fass noted the critical importance of promoting the kinds of solutions presented at the Sea the Future summit, saying they will surely play a role in feeding the world’s future (and current) generations.

“The issue of global food security and global food security is occupying us constantly – not only us, but the world. One of the solutions, in our point of view, is the production of food from the sea,” the minister said.

“We understand that if we have an ecosystem in Israel which is very strong in the Eilat area,” she concluded. “If we can take all the starting points we have in the area – industry, academy, research – and [nurture them] into a bigger program, then [while] Israel will never feed the world, Israel can, through its knowledge, its research and its investments, can be the place that all the world can learn from.”