The fruit that ‘saved the world’

Global experts gather at first-ever Israel International Pomegranate Symposium.

pomegranate  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first known pomegranate variety, called the “wonderful” pomegranate, was actually responsible for saving the world during ancient times, according to an industry expert.
“Hades saw this lovely girl Persephone picking flowers in the field and he abducted her and took her to this dark world,” explained Baruch Bar-Tel, varieties examiner at the Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Research Organization.
After Demeter, Persephone’s mother, responded by striking the world with drought and famine, Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to deal with the situation.
“Hermes brought Hades some sweet grains of pomegranate. And when Hades tasted these sweet arils he said this is wonderful!” Bar-Tel said. “So we see from this story that at that time, the pomegranate saved the world, as Demeter was happy again and brought rain again and there was no more famine and no more drought.”
Bar-Tel told this story at the First Israel International Pomegranate Symposium, part of the 2012 Fresh AgroMashov: International Fresh Produce Summit and Exhibition in Tel Aviv on Thursday. The two-day exhibition, which showcased products and techniques from agriculturists all over the world, was organized by the Mashov group – the firm also responsible for the annual CleanTech conference that occurs each spring. At the pomegranate symposium, arranged by the Pomeg-Tech group, experts from around the world shared various methods of breeding and cultivating the best pomegranate crops possible from various corners of the world.
To create the best pomegranates possible, it is important to keep developing and trying new varieties, according to Bar-Tel.
These varieties are able to receive international protection through the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), a global entity operating since 1991 that maintains a database of all distinct fruit varieties on worldwide basis.
“It’s really impossible for any country to maintain large collections of plants,” Bar-Tel said. “Not every country is able to do it alone.” Pomegranates grow optimally in regions with cold winters and hot summers, such as Anatalya, Turkey, but they can also grow in tropical zones – though many of these will bear little fruit, according to Dr. Fathi Abd Elhadi, CAO of Pomeg-Tech.
“Turkey is one of the original lands in terms of pomegranates,” agreed Prof.
Ahsen Isik Ozguven, of the department of horticulture at Cukurova University in Adana, Turkey. “Pomegranate growing is increasing year by year.”
A dormant tree can potentially survive temperatures lower than negative 11 degrees Celsius as well as precipitation, Elhadi explained. During ripening, however, the fruits must remain largely free of rains in order to prevent cracking, he said.
In order to ensure that the trees are getting enough water but not being damaged by floods, a farmer should use plastic mulching to enhance irrigation as well as dig ridges between tree rows to improve soil drainage, he added.
Around the world, researchers and farmers are seeking out new methods to optimize the quantity and quality of their pomegranate harvests, including taking a look at the tiniest of differences – the genetic markers – between cultivars.
“In Turkey, as well as in all the world, biotechnological research has led to important innovation in pomegranate breeding,” Ozguven said, stressing that several institutions are trying to determine genetic relationships between different types of breeds in Turkey.
The Afghani pomegranate industry is also currently booming, with 50,000 tons of the fruit exported in 2009, and scientists there are also experimenting with different varieties, according to Dr. Mohammad Ghous, field horticulturist in Kandahar.
While Ghous was at the last minute unable to attend the symposium in person, Pomeg-Tech CEO Dr. Dan Rymon delivered his presentation.
Ghous and his colleagues are working until 2015 with a European Commission for Perennial Horticulture Development, to help develop the fruit industry in general in the country.
In Israel, Dr. Doron Holland, a fruit molecular genetics researcher at the Neveh Ya’ar Research Center of the Agricultural Research Organization, has been assigning genetic identity cards to the different types of cultivars that he and his team produce.
They have about 150 cultivars – with around 40 originating in Israel, and the rest from all over the world.
The markers allow the scientists to pinpoint where each cultivar came from as well as determine what specific fruit types might have better ripening dates, softer seeds, survival ability in cold, more significant health benefits and disease resistance, he explained.
“This was not available up till now,” Holland said. “But in the next years it will be a must because this is the way to do it. This is what is done in humans and what is done in other organisms – so why not in pomegranates? But generating the varieties is not necessarily enough, as the fruits need to be able to stay fresh for a long time in order to maximize production value.
“In the past decade there has been a pomegranate renaissance,” said Dr. Gary Ward, of Israel-based StePac, a subsidiary of United Kingdom parent company DS Smith Plastics. “It’s considered to be a ‘super-fruit’ rich in anti-oxidants.”
Increased consumption combined with the narrow harvesting season of the fruit, however, leads to an increased demand for storage capabilities, according to Ward.
Typically, after two months of storage in Israel, pomegranates would shrivel and develop skin blemishes.
But in California, at ideal conditions, 5% oxygen and 15% carbon dioxide, the fruits were lasting for five months, Ward said.
Since 2003, his company StePac has therefore been working on developing alternative packaging solutions for prolonged storage of the fruit.
After years of modifications, StePac now is producing a type of film bag called Xtend Modified Atmosphere/Modified Humidity Packaging that minimizes fruit decay, decreases the occurrence of blemishes and reduces weight loss, Ward explained.
Hearkening back to the story of Hades and the delicious pomegranate seeds, Bar- Tel stressed the importance of constantly introducing new and better varieties of the fruit, and encouraged breeders in the room to do so.
“We hope to see in the future new varieties, so we can say also in the future that pomegranate saves the world again,” he said.