Eilat and Israel: Sand, sea and sustainability - opinion

With its year-round access to sea, sun and desert resources, Eilat is proving to be a fertile ground for R&D into aquaculture, biotechnology and renewable and sustainable energy

 UNDER THE sea at Eilat’s Underwater Observatory.  (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
UNDER THE sea at Eilat’s Underwater Observatory.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

My best memory of Eilat is from before we moved to Israel, when we took my then-two-year-old to the King Solomon Hotel for a Hanukkah holiday. I remember her delight at meeting Arik the Lion. I’ll never forget the first time my now budding chef made chocolate balls pre-Shabbat on the Friday afternoon, and the fun atmosphere at night as we walked up and down the bustling promenade. 

I remember the heart-thumping thrill of swimming in the sea with dolphins, as well as the questions I had at the time, seeing the sun-bleached corals and wondering why their color had gone. But coming from England, the winter weather was perfect. It’s still definitely on my list of happy places.

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was how the city, while best known for its tourism and water sports (welcoming three million visitors a year), was also an up-and-coming global center of excellence for research and development. 

With its year-round access to sea, sun and desert resources, Eilat is proving to be a fertile ground for R&D into aquaculture, biotechnology and renewable and sustainable energy. It’s also becoming a crucial hub for scientific research in the fields of limnology (the study of inland waters and their aquatic ecosystems); mariculture (the farming of marine organisms for food, food additives, nutraceuticals and so on); oceanography (the scientific study of all aspects of the ocean); and marine biotechnology (the creation of products and processes from marine organisms).

Experts are predicting that with an increasing global population, which is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, food production will have to increase by an enormous 70% to meet demand. At the same time, climate change, rising sea levels and soil erosion – thus less fertile land for growing crops – mean that in the future we’ll need to rely more on foods from the sea and the desert.

Eilat. (credit: RONY BALAHSAN)Eilat. (credit: RONY BALAHSAN)

In October, Eilat hosted the 1st International AgrIsrael “Sea the Future” Summit. The three-day aquaculture and desertech event focused on highlighting – and seeking to address – challenges to global sustainable and integrated aquaculture, as well as desert agriculture. It featured promising solutions, such as sustainable and nutritious foods of the future to help tackle food insecurity. It also presented cutting-edge platforms, including technologies to “tackle” global fishing supply pressures, while meeting the increasing demand for food from the sea.

Representatives from more than 12 countries, including partners from across the Middle East, such as Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco and the UAE, attended the event, indicating that the conference may well have been just as much about diplomacy as about sustainability. Participants included agriculture ministers, scientists and leading entrepreneurs, who reportedly discussed a number of challenges and solutions. These included defeating hunger through aquaculture, active ingredients in desert plants, smart agriculture and microalgae production in the Israeli desert.

What are some of these solutions?

Simpliigood, for example, is the first producer of commercially fresh spirulina for food. If, like me, you’ve never eaten it, spirulina algae is a seaweed biomass – a raw vegan protein and source of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. The company says it has worked out a method of producing it at high quality – with no unpleasant smell or taste – on a large scale, cost effectively and in an eco-friendly way.

Another example is Vertical Field, which develops leading-edge tech for urban farms, helping people to produce more than 200 types of pesticide-free, nutritious crops in any indoor or outdoor space within 21 days. The portable farm system can be placed in a variety of locations, such as inside or outside of schools, hospitals and restaurants. The company says the vertical farms can be operated easily, without training or professional agricultural expertise. Moreover, vertical farming is said to use up to 97% less water than conventional field-grown agriculture, can grow roughly six times more crops per meter, and can produce crops consistently year-round, regardless of the weather or season. As well as in Israel, Vertical Field can already be found in the US, Europe (UK, France and Germany), and Asia (Japan, China and Singapore).

Start-Up Nation Central suggests that Israel’s AgriFood-Tech sector is at an advantage precisely because of its disadvantage in having a shortage of natural resources. The organization highlights the positive environmental impacts that Israeli sustainable agricultural innovations have already made. For example, it points to the 75% of Israeli crops that are drip irrigated (compared to 5% globally), that Israeli innovations mean that cows are among the world’s most productive in terms of dairy farming, and the fact that 40% of all European tomato greenhouses use more resilient seeds, which were developed and first produced in Israel. 

Investment in climate tech is growing 

A report by the Israel Innovation Authority and the Israel Innovation Institute’s PLANETech suggested that between 2018 and 2021, investment in climate-related start-ups grew 2.6 times faster in Israel than in the rest of the world. According to PLANETech’s data, investors are shifting from investing in “traditional” hi-tech to technologies that are helping to solve a sustainability challenge, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions or working to mitigate climate change. Moreover, this trend is expected to continue.

There are reportedly around 700 climate-tech start-ups in Israel, up 57 compared to the previous year. Investments in alternative proteins is said to be the most popular, followed by companies involved in carbon capture and removal, and carbon management, risk and finance.

At PLANETech’s World 2022 Conference in September, ten Israeli climate-tech companies were announced. They will represent Israel in November at the United Nations COP27 Climate Change Summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. A number of these are contributing in some way to tackling the challenges of future food security, whether through sustainable food production, food waste reduction or by enabling food to be grown and cooked in an environmentally friendly way (such as HomeBiogas, whose home garden system turns organic waste into fertilizer and cooking gas).

Also featured will be Remilk (which says it turns yeast into dairy proteins to make products like milk, cheese and yogurt); Aleph Farms (which is developing cultivated steak); and Beewise (which has created an autonomous beehive system, housing and caring for up to two million bees though computer vision, AI and precision robotics).

Groundwork BioAg will be raising awareness about its low-cost method of producing a fungus that works in tandem with plant roots to lower the need for using fertilizer, and help plants cope with stressful conditions such as  drought. And Wiliot will be demonstrating their computer stickers, which they say can track any product in a supply chain. The stickers provide information not only about each individual item’s location, fill rate, carbon footprint and so on, but also about temperature, helping to avoid issues such as spoilage and waste in the case of food.

I’m assuming most readers won’t be attending COP27, but the next time you go to Eilat, when you visit the underwater observatory marine park and see the remarkable giant turtles and sharks, remember to ask someone there about how the city is working to preserve marine life. And as you hike and trek through the Red Canyon and marvel at the awe-inspiring desert, mountains and hills all in one place, remember to ask your guide about the research being done to grow food in even the most arid of landscapes. Oh – and for the little ones, I recommend visiting Arik the Lion, too (if he’s still around!). ■

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for India’s WION (World Is One News) TV news channel. The author of Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19, she has helped numerous multinationals report on their contributions to tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. On Twitter: JodieCohen613.

The views expressed are those of the author.