Saturday, April 25, 2015

Solutions to the Planet's Food Security Needs

Negev Desert
There are mud huts to block out the heat, solar micro panels for cooking, biogas production from waste, and wet mattresses to grow vegetables and flowers in the desert. This is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Yotvata, the most torrid and depopulated area in Israel's Negev desert, where a community of scientists and researchers are relentlessly seeking solutions to problems beseeching the inhabitants of the planet's poorest countries.

A three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, this is a scientific frontier where Israel is using high-tech and human ingenuity to find solutions to the planet's food security needs amid severe environmental challenges. The Israeli pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 will be a window into this laboratory.

Not far from kibbutz of Ketura, a village of mud huts, looking just like many of those in the remote areas of Africa and Asia, was built to re-create the original environment that needs help and is not connected to electricity, water or telephone.

The mud huts are comprised of plastic bags containing fibers that can't be penetrated by excessive temperatures. An electric oven in the center of a hut is powered by a micro-solar panel outside. A little further on, a visitor sees that the village uses new techniques that have been developed for life in the desert: facilities for recycling organic waste into biological gases, the cultivation of seeds that are able to flower even in salty soil, development of desert grasses into materials for biofuel production.

In the kibbutz of Lotan, the Center for Creative Biology grapples with the construction of similar huts and technologies. Just to the north is the Hatzeva research station where more than 40% of Israel's agricultural exports are produced in the greenhouses. As far as the eye can see, there are fields of fruit, vegetables, and flowers, where even the most diverse plants can grow thanks to the human ability to invent solutions. With the wet mattresses strategically placed in several directions, fans that take advantage of the desert air circulate the temperate air.

It's not surprising that halfway between Hatzeva and Yotvata is the Keren Kayemet Le-Israel — the Jewish National Fund that has taken care of the development of nature in Israel since the birth of the state — where there is an agricultural school that has welcomed hundreds of students from the Third World. The national flags hang outside the doors to indicate the students' countries of origin, including those that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The aim of the Arava Institute is to transform agriculture into a high-tech bridge to the Third World, just like the successful recent project of Furrows in the Desert, which introduced agriculture to the village of north Turkana, Kenya.

Source: Worldcrunch

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Long Live Petunias!

PetuniasA pot of pretty petunias will practically sell itself, but petunias don’t retain their beauty for long. A joint Israeli-American “precise breeding” project is now working toward extending the life of these popular flowers.

The three-year collaboration brings together a patented plant-breeding technology called MemoGene, developed by Israel’s Danziger Innovations and the Hebrew University’s Yissum tech-transfer company, with a DNA editing platform developed by Precision Biosciences in North Carolina.

The platform’s biological “scissors” will be tailored to cut open the flower’s genome at exactly the right spot for MemoGene to deliver the life-extending trait.

The partnership is supported by a BIRD (Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development) Foundation grant awarded in December of 2014.

 “Domesticating” plants for the market by selecting genes to enhance yield and seed quality causes some desirable traits to be lost along with undesirable ones. Reinserting the lost “good” trait is a cumbersome, lengthy process that can be shortened by using genetic modification – a technique that is highly regulated because it raises questions of safety in food crops.

MemoGene technology is as specific as genetic modification, but it is deregulated because it does not  add any new genes that are not already present in nature. This advantage hastens commercialization and avoids consumer concerns.

Though the technology can be applied to just about any crop – and probably will be in the future – petunias were a good place to start. The pink-to-purple flower is a favorite; 300 million to 350 million cuttings are supplied to growers around the world every year. And the flower is well understood on a molecular level due to numerous scientific studies.

Another reason to start with petunias is Danziger’s expertise and market share in petunia varieties. The family-owned Danziger Innovations, founded in 2008, is the R&D spin-off of the 62-year-old Danziger - "Dan" Flower Farm, one of the world’s top five providers of petunia cuttings.

Danziger - "Dan" Flower Farm’s petunias are propagated by cuttings, not by seeds, and exported from Israel to growers and nurseries all over the world.

Located in Mishmar HaShiv’a near Ben-Gurion International Airport, Danziger - "Dan" Flower Farm is one of the biggest floriculture breeders and exporters in Israel, supplying not only petunia cuttings but also propagating material for many ornamental plants and flowers to customers in 60 countries.

The innovative petunias coming from the new joint project are to be tested and implemented in Israel as well as in Danziger-owned flower farms in Guatemala and Kenya, where land and water are more plentiful than in Israel.

These farms - and potentially many more - stand to benefit from the new precision-breeding research now underway.

Non-GMO breeding has the potential to help solve the world’s looming food crisis. A decade ago, the ambitious and well-meaning Golden Rice project of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology sought to provide vitamin A enriched rice to parts of Southeast Asia where many people were vitamin-deficient. But the project failed because of widespread rejection of genetically modified crops. Millions are suffering and dying just because Golden Rice was labeled GMO and nobody wanted to consume it.

Once the proof of concept for the Danziger Innovations-Precision Biosciences technology in petunias is completed, it can be offered as a tool to produce better food crops in the future.

Source: Israel21c