Trend in agriculture favors resource management, sustainability

Agritech 2009 showcase of Israeli technology draws int'l crowd.

plants agriculture 224.8 (photo credit: Courtesy)
plants agriculture 224.8
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Overseas visitors flocked to the opening day of the Agritech Israel 2009 Exhibition at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Tuesday. Alternately talking earnestly with demonstrators at the various booths and snapping photos of themselves on farm machinery, delegations from every continent except Antarctica came to examine the best of Israeli agricultural technology. Visitors wandered the halls and the outside exhibition area at the 17th annual fair, looking at irrigation systems, pipes, sprinklers, a vegetable oil-powered tractor, fans, and all of the other myriad technology that forms the basis of modern agriculture. Perhaps more than other sectors, agriculture has been greatly affected by changing climate conditions. Whereas water scarcity has always been an issue in Israel, it now affects farmers everywhere. In response to customer demand and their own initiatives, some of the major companies have begun developing ever more advanced irrigation management systems, which significantly reduce water use. The systems, such as those developed by Motorola and NaanDanJain, control every aspect of irrigation by coming up with an equation that computes optimal watering based on 24-hour data about atmospheric conditions and the plants. From an environmental perspective, there are two clear advantages to such a system, representatives of the two companies explained to The Jerusalem Post at their respective booths. First, such systems conserve copious amounts of water. Savings of up to 40 percent in water were cited by the companies' representatives. The city of Bat Yam installed Motorola's system a year and a half ago to manage 900 dunams, or 90 hectares, of fields and lawns. It saved 945,000 cubic meters of water that translated into savings of NIS 3 million. The Motorola representative pointed out that smart management systems could help municipalities save water when irrigating lawns and public parks - an issue which has recently been brought to the fore as the Water Authority seeks to deal with the domestic water crisis. The second advantage, NaanDanJain chief agronomist Kobi Shilo told the Post, was that it reduced the use of fertilizer. With better control systems and better sensors, less fertilizer is needed, and when it is used, it is not flushed away through over-watering to end up polluting the ground water. NaanDanJain is a joint Israeli-Indian company that merged two years ago. NaanDan was a kibbutz-based business, while Jain was a family company that has since gone public. NaanDanJain also specializes in low precipitation sprinkler systems and drip irrigation. "Drip irrigation only accounts for 5% of irrigation worldwide, but we're seeing more of an interest as water resources become scarcer," Shilo said. In the future, they hope to continue to push their drip irrigation and low precipitation products into the market, he said. To a certain extent, it seems as though efficient, cost effective products based on recent technological breakthroughs could have a positive impact on sustainability, even if they were not originally developed specifically with sustainability in mind. For instance, Shilo said the water savings from their irrigation system were discovered only after development, but, of course, have been fully promoted in an increasingly environmentally conscious world. However, Jain managing director Ajit B. Jain, whose father founded the company, maintained that his company was very committed to sustainability. "Conservation is a theme which runs through our entire product line," he told the Post at the company's private pavilion, "Saving water, fertilizer, saving energy. We have companies which focus on pipes, on solar energy, and food processing. The solid waste from the food processing is turned into manure using worms. Sustainability is a conscious choice for us. We are trying to achieve nature's balance." The company brought 400 Indian farmers to Agritech 2009. They also have an active staff of experts on the ground in India instructing farmers on best practices, Jain said. One Israeli start-up claims to have harnessed one aspect of nature's balance to increase yield ten-fold. Kaiima CEO Dr. Doron Gal said his company had developed a technology to multiply the plant's genome and thus increase yield. As opposed to mutating a plant, their technology merely sped up what nature did itself, he said. "Our technology can be used with any plant, but we decided to focus on sustainable development. We're looking to focus on three areas: bio-fuel, basic food staples like rice and wheat and the environment," he said. The company has begun focusing on castor bean hybrids to make them competitive with oil as a bio-fuel. While castor bean oil cannot generally compete with petroleum price-wise, Gal claimed that his company's technology could boost yields so dramatically as to make it competitive. Castor beans are not food crops and can be grown in marginal areas, thus removing the competition with food crops. Previous generations of bio-fuel based on corn or soy drove food prices higher at some points. And once you have all your plant and irrigation technology in place, you can take a ride to survey your land on a new tractor which runs on vegetable oil. The hybrid tractor uses diesel to warm up the engine but then runs on a vegetable oil bio-fuel that is available in Israel. The Same Deutz-Fahr prototype was on display at the exhibition and is being marketed in Israel by Israel Motor-Vehicles & Parts Co. The exhibition runs until Thursday. Organizers expect 4,000 overseas visitors, including several agricultural ministers, and for deals worth $40 million to be negotiated over the course of the event. Agritech Israel 2009 is sponsored by the Agriculture, Industry Trade and Labor, and Foreign ministries as well as the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute and the Kibbutz Industries Association.