Four Israeli companies hoping to help halt the world's food crisis

While economists and policymakers propose working plans, an Israeli agricultural and biological technology company says it has made a scientific breakthrough that can help lower bread prices.

 WILK TEAM members work in the lab. (photo credit: Dani Bachar)
WILK TEAM members work in the lab.
(photo credit: Dani Bachar)

After more than five months of fighting between Russia and Ukraine, the world is facing what could quickly become a full-scale global food crisis, centered around the supply and cost of wheat.

Nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley are exported from Russia and Ukraine, according to the United Nations. Russia agreed to ensure the safe movement of Ukrainian grain to global markets earlier this month, but then struck the Ukrainian port in Odesa, temporarily halting exports.

In Israel, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivay are holding discussions on the increase in the price of a basic loaf of bread and evaluating proposals for how to halt it.

While economists and policymakers propose working plans, an Israeli agricultural and biological technology company says it has made a scientific breakthrough that can help lower bread prices.

Through the use of microbiome bacteria, wheat crop yield can be quadrupled, according to Lavie Bio. The solution is already being implemented in the US.

 JARS OF Bee-io Honey. (credit: RAFI DELOUYA) JARS OF Bee-io Honey. (credit: RAFI DELOUYA)

Lavie Bio is just one of many Israeli foodtech start-ups aimed at positively affecting the food industry, and improving sustainable and cost-effective production, nutrition and, ultimately, people’s health.

Lavie Bio is a subsidiary of Evogene, Ltd., a computational biology company that focuses on collaboration between innovative technologies and agriculture. Its latest product is based on the naturally occurring microbial population living close to or within the plant. Microbes, company president and CEO Ofer Haviv explained, are “functional units” within a plant. Discovering the right microbes and increasing their quantity can improve crop yield and protect the plants from insects.

“Four years ago, using our technology, we succeeded in identifying two microbes that, if you put them in the soil when you grow wheat, can lead to yield improvement – the wheat grows faster and stronger.”

Ofer Haviv

“Four years ago, using our technology, we succeeded in identifying two microbes that, if you put them in the soil when you grow wheat, can lead to yield improvement – the wheat grows faster and stronger,” Haviv said.

More wheat, grown in less space and requiring fewer resources, means lower prices.

It also translates to healthier food, Haviv said. The microbes do not enter the crops or influence them in any way, unlike nasty pesticides, which more research is showing can have long-term negative effects on people’s bodies ranging from cancers and neurological disorders to birth defects.

And the technology is greener too.

“The main motivation of the company is ‘fork to farm,’” Haviv said. “People want to know what they are putting in their mouths and how their food is being treated in the field.”

Lavie Bio entered the US market this year with a soft launch in North Dakota. The results, he said, “can be seen with your own eyes. In the areas where the microbes were used, the crops look better compared to the areas that did not use the microbes.”

He said obtaining regulatory approval for the microbes is not overly complicated because the microbes already exist in the soil and his company is just increasing their quantity and concentration around the crop itself. US regulatory authorities can approve it as material to be used in agriculture.

From the US, the company hopes to sell in Canada and Europe and soon expand its microbe line.

“There is still a lot to learn about microbes and how we can use them for the benefit of human beings,” Haviv said.

Human milk, made in a lab

Another food challenge is breast milk. According to Rachelle Neumann, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs for the foodtech start-up Wilk, there is not enough breast milk in the world to feed babies in general and the existing alternatives are just not close enough to the real benefits of breast milk.

On the dairy side, the cattle industry’s carbon footprint is well established. According to Our World in Data, producing cow’s milk versus plant-based alternatives causes around three times as much greenhouse gas emissions and uses around 10 times as much land.

Wilk is in the initial stages of developing milk ingredients that could eventually be included in infant formulas and your milk products. The company takes real tissue from women and cows and isolates its milk-secreting cells. Then, through cell culturing – and the use of a bioreactor and “our secret sauce,” said Neumann – it can produce real milk ingredients.

“We are not copying or doing anything to produce something similar to milk,” Neumann said. “This is the real thing. Our milk comes from real cells.”

Ultimately, Wilk hopes to provide these milk ingredients to the dairy so they can benefit from cell cultured milk ingredients, while being friendly to the environment.

“We are not going to be a substitute for breast milk, as there is nothing that can really compare to the benefits of breast milk,” Neumann said. But she noted that many times moms cannot nurse for assorted reasons. And in the case of pre-term babies, those that cannot have breast milk have a 50% less chance of survival.

“Infant formula has bovine or plant-based ingredients. Imagine that we could eventually have infant formula that contains real human milk ingredients. It could be a game-changer,” she said.

Wilk’s lab is up and running and it plans to launch its first pilot product in 2024 in collaboration with Tara Dairy. Wilk already received a patent for its technology in the US.

Vanilla Vida

Another company is on a mission to “make natural flavors more available and affordable while liberating food companies from the dependence on synthetic materials,” and it’s kicking off with vanilla, according to the website of Vanilla Vida.

“People do not want synthetic ingredients anymore,” company CEO Oren Zilberman said. “Almost everything is moving from synthetic to natural.”

But in the case of vanilla, there is just not enough crop to meet demand – partially due to the traditional and very labor-intensive way that it is grown and cultivated and partially because of the impacts of climate change on the tropical environments needed for its growth.

Vanilla Vida, founded in the Strauss foodtech hub, believes it can fix the problem.

The company can grow vanilla without the effects of weather and climate change. Using image processing technology, Vanilla Vida ensures disease detection, quality control and plant behavior pattern identification. The result is five times more vanilla grown per square foot, a growth cycle that takes 20% less time and an 85% reduction in curing process time.

It also uses non-GMO methods to alter the metabolism of vanilla beans, navigating the beans sensory profiles by clients demand, and allows three times more vanillin concentration then market average.

“We are changing the ability to have a stable supply of vanilla when the rest of the world is stuck,” Zilberman said.

“We believe food should be harvested, not synthesized,” the company website reads. “Natural ingredients are healthier for consumers and the environment.”

Honey keepers

A natural sweetener like honey is one of the most sought-after foods in the world based on its global market size: $8.6 billion in 2021, according to a recent industry report.

However, honeybees continue to die at a high rate, putting access to the sticky sweet at risk. Greenpeace USA said bees are dying from everything from pesticides and habitat destruction to air pollution and global warming.

At the same time, thousands of non-honeybee species are becoming extinct as farmers focus on cultivating honeybees, which are not able to pollinate all of the world’s crops and wildflowers. 

Israeli company Bee-io Honey believes it can have influence by producing high-quality, clean honey without honeybees at all.

“We have built a company that can produce cultivated honey that is almost identical on a molecular level to natural honey,” explained company CEO Ofir Dvash. He said the product is ready and Bee-io is now working on achieving regulatory approval in the US market.

To understand Bee-io, one first has to know how natural honey is made. Flowers bloom and bees roam around and land on those flowers to drink their nectar. Bees have a separate stomach for nectar, called a honey stomach. The nectar goes into that stomach.

Bees produce different proteins that are then secreted into that nectar and change it on a molecular level, transforming it into honey in their stomachs, which is then regurgitated into the honeycomb. 

But the honey that most people consume today is not natural honey, Dvash said. Rather, it is industrial honey, commonly containing pesticides, toxins and often antibiotics, which have been given to bees by beekeepers to help stop them from dying of diseases. 

“Using a fermentation process and bioreactors, we are able to produce in microorganisms those proteins that are produced by the bees, to mimic the honey-making process,” Dvash said. Then, the company combines the proteins with the flower nectar components and makes honey. The flowers are all organic and grown naturally.

“I want to allow everyone to have affordable honey,” Dvash said. ■