The ancient remedy of essential oils used by the Egyptians, Chinese and Incas has now been updated to free crops from pests.The chemical pesticides used in modern agriculture and in the home are poisoning our planets’ animal life, waterways and ecosystems. They enter our bodies, and can even affect unborn children. Helping humanity break from this nasty cycle of destruction is an Israeli company, BotanoCap. The company envisions a future where organic produce will be the norm, and its toxic-free pesticide delivery solution the standard.
The company, based in Ashkelon, has developed an environmentally friendly pesticide release system in order to take advantage of naturally occurring essential oils such as citronella. Especially selective, essential oils have been used by ancient societies such as the Egyptians, the Chinese and the Incas for therapeutic reasons, but they also used oils as pesticides, says Yigal Gezundhait, the CEO of BotanoCap.
Essential oils are used today by “boutique” organic farms as a novelty, he explains, but are not used widely in the agriculture industry, mainly for one reason: efficacy. Essential oils degrade quickly as they oxidize, rendering them ineffective not long after application. “It’s the same principle you find in perfumes. At first when you spray it, the smell is strong, but within seconds it already starts to weaken,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Lubricating safer pesticide practice
Gezundhait knew there could be an effective way for keeping the potency of the oil in check. The key was simplicity, he says. Working with chemists from Ben Gurion University to develop a new encapsulation polymer, the company of eight, founded in 2004, has a solution that could help agriculture-rich US states such as California by as early as 2009.
BotanoCap has developed a patented method for emulsifying (or suspending) essential oils in a water-based solution so that natural, essential-oil based pesticides, can be applied in a traditional manner. The oils in BotanoCap’s suspension are then released through a slow diffusion, over time, for maximum efficacy.
While the knowledge in the power of essential oils used by BotanoCap may not be a revolution — in fact much of the recipes are common knowledge in the natural chemicals industry today – it was important for Gezundhait that the technology “resembled” what the industry uses today. He didn’t want to have to change the behavior of the industry, or ask them to buy new tools. His solutions are a natural choice, applied in the same method as the old pesticides, with a tank, or aerial applications.
Pesticides are still “the pits” in California
Earlier this month Gezundhait returned from a high-end California Israel Chamber of Commerce cleantech meeting in California, where he met with some of the state’s leading investors and industries. It’s too early to say what will happen from the initial meetings, but he is optimistic, especially since California’s agriculture industry is in much need of alternatives.
California is a leading agriculture producer in the world, mainly in the area of pitted fruits like peaches, apricots and plums: “The US is our main market because it consumes 35 percent of the world’s pesticides, and California is the leading state because it provides about 35% of the country’s agricultural goods, $7 billion dollars worth,” Gezundhait tells ISRAEL21c. BotanoCap is aiming to enter the entire agriculture market, he adds, and not just the organic one. “Once there is an alternative to the chemicals being used today, there won’t be a need for the word ‘organic’,” he says.
There are already three BotanoCap solutions now being adopted in Israel. One is an essential oil formulation to kill mosquito larvae, to knock out malaria and yellow fever; there is a solution that kills fleas and ticks on farm animals, a first in the market since chemicals can’t be used on animals designated for human consumption. Thirdly, Israel’s national water carrier Mekorot is using a BotanoCap solution to protect its water resources from infestation.
Selective and safe for the farm, pets and home
BotanoCap now continues its work in a number of areas, including solutions for natural bactericides and fungicides, materials against fleas and tics and other insect repellents; crop protection pesticides, as well as larvicides against mosquitoes, and pesticides against cockroaches and ants – all made from natural materials.
“We have also defined how the oil should attack insects,” says Gezundhait. “It can attack directly as an insecticide. It can be applied with a ‘repellent’ mode of action, and ‘blow’ away the pests from the crop; or it can be used as an insect growth regulator.”
Profs. Arie Markus and Charles Linder, from Ben Gurion University both have executive positions in the company, founded with private investment, as part of the Ashkelon Technological Industries – Tech. Incubator in Ashkelon.
The company is also running a number of trials to make sure that the natural oils deployed through its delivery solution, don’t harm keystone species, such as bees. Honeybees in America are suffering from the unusual colony collapse disorder. One hypothesis is that traditional chemical pesticides sprayed by farms have caused the bees’ demise. A new pesticide solution that could be used widely would be very much welcomed by industry, and the bees.