Coming to your fruit bowl, a tastier, less thirsty Pitaya

Israeli growers may have new hit with improved version of the dragon fruit, "meeting challenge of food production will prevent wars."

dragon fruit pitaya_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dragon fruit pitaya_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli farmers have long been known for their innovative methods of producing high yields in their arid land. Now, an exotic cactus fruit usually native to wet tropical climates has been developed and grown in Israel that proves to be tastier and more colorful.
It’s called the pitaya, and it also known as the dragon fruit.
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“We developed the varieties that are nice in shape and better in taste and that is what we are looking for. We are looking for red pulp so that buyers will be able to differentiate us from the other,” Yossi Zaphrir, a farmer and managing director of Top Eden Fruits, told The Media Line.
The pitaya fruit originated in the South American jungles. French colonialists introduced it to Vietnam about a century ago. But their variety has white pulp and is said to be pretty bland in flavor.
In Israel, new varieties have been developed to improve its taste and compete in the lucrative European markets. Working with Ben Gurion University, Israeli farmers have developed new varieties like the “Golden” and the “Venus.” Their fruit comes in shades of purple and red and Zaphrir said they are tastier and sweeter.
Israeli farmers have a tradition of taking exotic fruits and turning them into marketable products. Decades ago it was the avocado and kiwi. Today, it’s the pitaya and others. Exotic fruits are a niche, but lucrative market, especially in Europe. 
“There’s a trend all over the world now to eat exotic fruits for a few reasons. One is that they are very healthy. They also have a lot of vitamins and antioxidants, especially the red varieties. Therefore we went on that niche because there is increasing demand for that fruit,” said Zaphrir during a tour of his plantation in Kfar Bilu, in central Israel.
The pitaya cacti aren’t planted in the soil, but in flower pots in order to better control their hydroponics and protect against disease and insects. As a result, scientists have been able to reduce the amount of water they require by a third. Top Eden Fruits is also designing the fruit to have a longer shelf life and grow year round. 
The fruit looks like a colorful artichoke, with layers of spiky leaves. Peel this off and the inside pulp has the texture of a kiwi fruit. The “Venus” has red pulp, the “Golden” (also known as “Apollo”) has yellow pulp. The smaller “Desert King” has a deep purple pulp.
The pitaya and other fruits and agricultural innovations will be displayed at an upcoming agriculture conference in Tel Aviv. Called the Agro-Mashov, it expects to draw thousands of farmers and researchers from around the world.
Haim Alush, the chief executive officer of Agro-Mashov, warned that the world was facing a “catastrophe” as it tried to feed a mushrooming population that has grown from two billion to seven billion in just 70 years.
“For years, Israel has been working to do agriculture in a part of the world with little water and a lack of arable farm land. Israelis have learned how to get higher yields from less land and water. We have groundbreaking innovations and Israelis want to teach the world,” Alush told The Media Line.
Ronnie Freidman, dean of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture, echoed Alush’s concerns.
“Food production isn’t keeping up with global growth. In the next 20 to 30 years there won’t be enough food because of the limited amount of arable land. Modern-day agriculture cannot continue to exploit the environment as it once did,” Freidman told The Media Line.
He said that 50 years ago, one hectare of farmland supported 2.5 people and that it had doubled by today. He predicted that global population in 2050 would reach over 10 billion people and that a hectare of land would have to support seven people.
“We are working on how to boost world food supplies, alleviate hunger, but also to do it in a way that preserves a sustainable environment,” Freidman said.
Alush said representatives from about 110 countries would be attending the Agro-Mashov agriculture exhibition scheduled for early March in Tel Aviv. He said that special emphasis was being given to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations.
“There will also be a lot of Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians, and it will be a celebration for the whole region. We believe that if the whole world can meet this challenge of food production that we will be able to prevent wars,” Alush said.