Harnessing tea tree oil for healthier agriculture

Biomor’s products are based on essential oil compounds that evaporate completely and do not leave residue on fruits, vegetables or herbs. Fresh fruits and vegetables should be an enjoyable and healthy part of life. But growing concern about the effects …

Biomor’s products are based on essential oil compounds that evaporate completely and do not leave residue on fruits, vegetables or herbs.

Fresh fruits and vegetables should be an enjoyable and healthy part of life. But growing concern about the effects of chemical pesticides has taken away some of the enjoyment – and as a result, more consumers in the US and around the world are looking for cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and other produce to be grown without chemicals.

An ongoing problem for farmers has been meeting that increasing demand, while still maintaining healthy crops free from fungus, mildew and other plant diseases.

A young Israeli company called Biomor believes that the secret to effectively fighting plant disease in an environmentally-friendly ‘green’ manner lies in a natural plant extract: tea tree oil.

Tea tree oil – the key ingredient in Biomor’s two products Timor and Timorex – is an essential oil steam distilled from the Australian plant Melaleuca alternifolia, which contains over 100 components. This natural oil is an effective antiseptic, fungicide and bactericide, and has been used safely and effectively in the health and cosmetics industry for years.

The initial success of Biomor’s products in Israel and the tremendous amount of international interest and excitement as they have begun marketing abroad points to a bright future – so bright that the company recently won the award for the best project among the new Israeli companies that are currently part of the government’s Technological Incubator Program.

Biomor is also a company with a clear mission beyond business success. Their decidedly un-corporate slogan: ‘Let Us Save the World for our Children.’

“We really believe we are doing something good here, and not just trying to make money,” said the company’s silver-haired founder and CEO Dani Neifeld, sitting in a Tel Aviv café, having traveled from the company’s research center on the Golan Heights for a day of business meetings.

There is, however, a great potential for profits. With eating healthier a growing goal for millions, the organic food sector has become the fastest- growing segment of the agricultural industry: even wineries are getting into the act, and whole vineyards are devoted to producing organic wines.

Neifeld emphasizes that while the core market for Biomor products is the organic sector, he sees potential sales throughout the agricultural sector.

Pesticides, he explains, are a growing concern everywhere in the world. Even beyond the ideological organic movement, conventional farmers and agricultural companies are becoming troubled about the larger quantities of these pesticides that they and their workers are exposed to and the effects on their health. And ‘small-time’ farmers – those who maintain greenhouses, home gardens, or even house plants don’t want their families and pets exposed to dangerous chemicals.

“The whole world is moving in this direction,” Neifeld told ISRAEL21c.

Neifeld is a 7th generation Israeli – “a real Palestinian”, he jokes. As an idealistic young man, after growing up in Petah Tikva and completing his army service, he helped found Kibbutz Afik in the southern Golan Heights where he spent years farming, both in the fields and as a manager of the kibbutz’s agricultural endeavors.

“Then, because I wanted to be a smart farmer and not a dumb farmer,” he says, “I went to study biology at Hebrew University.”

After many years on the kibbutz, he sought a change of pace and was sent as an emissary to Sydney, Australia for three years to run Jewish youth programs. While there, “with my biology background, I couldn’t help looking at every plant I saw.”

He became fascinated with the tea tree and the product it produced, which seemed had numerous cosmetic and paramedical uses – used in everything from toothpaste to skin cream for treatment of acne.

When he returned to Israel, he brought some tea tree branches with him, and stayed interested in the plant and continued to investigate its properties, even as he pursued other business endeavors.

Undecided as to whether he wanted to study the tea tree scientifically or move ahead and develop it commercially, he took his work to Prof. Moshe Reuveni, whose wife he knew through professional connections.

“What I knew I wanted to explore was the idea that if this substance could help and heal humans, I wanted to see what it could do for plants,” Neifeld says.

Reuveni, an expert in plant pathology, spent four years as post-doctoral research fellow and research associate at the Plant Pathology Department at the University of Kentucky, and worked for three years as senior research scientist for Plant Biotechnology Industry in Israel. He joined the Golan Research Institute, University of Haifa in Israel in 1990. Since 1999 has served as the head of the Institute.

Reuveni was immediately intrigued by Neifeld’s ideas – and believed they belonged in the commercial market, not the ivory tower. “I was very interested: I had spent much of my career looking for such a material that could replace certain pesticides, and wanted to see how we could use it for different compounds. I said ‘let’s give it a try.’”

Reuveni became the company’s co-founder and chief scientist and they spent an intensive year developing the product, before taking it to the Technological Incubator program.

His enthusiasm for the potential of tea tree oil was fueled by the knowledge that the farmers who want to grow chemical-free untainted crops continue to struggle with the issue of how to keep their plants healthy and free from mildew and other plant diseases while retaining their organic pedigree.

The copper and sulfur-based pesticides organic farmers use today have come under increasing criticism for their effects on the food and the environment. In Europe, the use of the copper-based pesticides has almost disappeared, as governments have forbidden their use.

The advantage of Biomor’s tea tree oil based products are numerous. Unlike copper or sulfur, Biomor’s organic products do not harm beneficial insects in the greenhouse, thus saving the cost and hassle of having to re-introduce these natural beneficial insects to the greenhouse or field and they can be incorporated in Integrated Pest Management programs.

Another clear advantage of Timor and Timorex is the fact that they are based on essential oil compounds that evaporate completely and do not leave residue on fruits, vegetables or herbs unlike sulfur or copper based products. This means that the produce can be picked immediately post spraying and no cleaning of the produce is necessary.

It has been an intensive two years for the Biomor team, developing the product and working to obtain regulatory approvals in dozens of countries, required to sell their product to farmers in these countries.

“Big companies in this field – and most of the companies in agriculture are big – take more than five years to do what we’ve done in less than two – develop a new product and bring it to market,” says Neifeld.

What was helpful was that the organic farming community in Israel was “open, cooperative, and like all organic farmers, looking for solutions,” he adds.

After research into the substance and testing the best way to harness its qualities in the fields, Timor and Timorex are effective against a broad spectrum of plant diseases in vegetables, herbs, grapevines and fruit trees, keeping away the mildews and fungus that significantly reduce crop yields and undermine the economics of both farmers and consumers.

In the US, they have been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as a biofungicide, but are still in the slow process of being certified as an organic solution by the Organic Material Review Institute.

“It’s a lot like getting kosher certification,” Neifeld notes.

In the meantime, Biomor is moving more quickly in countries where registration is less cumbersome and are in the ‘field trial stage’ – the agricultural equivalent of clinical trials. The trials, they note, have been initiated by interested potential customers.

When the conversation turns to business, Oren Meytes, the company’s chief of business development joins the conversation in the Tel Aviv café.

Sitting beside the two older veteran agriculturalists, Meytes looks like the ultimate urban high tech Tel Aviv businessman, though he quickly points out, “My grandfather was a farmer.”

Meytes, was the co-founder of Maximal, a leading data warehousing vendor, and served as its vice president of business development, before the company was sold to Microsoft, which is now offering the product that Maximal had developed as part of its office suite.

He also served as a senior analyst for Pitango, and held various senior positions in financial investment analysis, project management and software. He spotted Biomor shortly after it became part of the Technological Incubator program, perceived its potential and joined the team.

Currently, Timor and Timorex are sold to farmers as powdered concentrates. In the fields, the products are used by spraying from the ground, from the air and by dipping. At home or in greenhouses, they can simply be sprayed onto plants, and the company sells small 125 or 250 ml bottles and pre-diluted sprays for this purpose.

Early sales are promising: in Israel and a handful of other countries in Europe and South America, the first year sales have taken place, and repeat orders have already come in.

In a $30 billion market, the company believes that reaching sales of $100 million in six or seven years is realistic.

Soon two more products in the pipeline will join Timor and Timorex – an insecticide and a fungicide.

Meytes says that the company is still looking for a strategic partner to bring the product to the US, and that there has already been interest from companies such as Scotts, the garden and lawn care giant, who are watching the small Israeli start-up carefully, and with good reason, he says.

“Biomor is good for the consumer, good for the farmer, and good for the environment. It is definitely a company to watch.”