If the Israeli cow is the world champion milk producer, if Israel has superior wheat for pasta and bread, if tomatoes grow year-round and citrus fruits are peelable and pit-free — we can thank Yitzhak Elazari Wilkanski.

This agricultural scientist, who immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in 1908 from Lithuania and changed his last name to Volcani, established the Agricultural Experiment Station at Ben Shemen in 1921. This was the forerunner of the Volcani Center Agricultural Research Organization, the research arm of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture since 1952.

The logo of the Volcani Center Agricultural Research Organization. Photo via Pikiwiki Israel

The center’s logo is seven species encircled by a biblical verse describing Israel as “A land of wheat and barley and grapevines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil olives and dates.”

Volcani saw that the pioneer Jewish farmers needed more than grit and determination to be successful – they needed cutting-edge scientific research.

“The worker of the land, himself, does not investigate, or make new innovations, does not discover codes, and does not pave roads. If he devotes his efforts to such endeavours, he will not make a living,” he wrote in 1918. “Therefore, the worker of the land has to place research work in the hands of those entrusted to do so, and they will guide the growers in the fields of their labors.”

Israel Post issued this stamp in honor of the Volcani Center’s centennial. Photo courtesy of Israel Post

Today, the Volcani Center is the largest institution devoted to agricultural research and development in Israel, advancing agriculture in Israel and abroad through innovation and problem-solving.

Headquartered in Rishon LeZion with experimental research stations north and south, the Volcani Center is responsible for many of Israel’s groundbreaking developments in plant and animal breeding, protected agriculture, irrigation, arid-land agriculture, postharvest handling, crop protection and farm mechanization.

An aerial view of the Volcani Center in Rishon LeZion. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Volcani Center encompasses six institutes: Animal Sciences, Plant Protection, Soil, Water & Environmental Sciences, Plant Sciences, Agricultural Engineering, and Postharvest & Food Sciences.

Approximately 200 PhDs employed in these institutes share their expertise and innovations with agronomists across the globe, and work with hundreds of graduate students from Israel and abroad.

The Volcani’s northern Neve Ya’ar research station has a model farm for sustainable agriculture, spices and health products. The southern Gilat research station focuses on desert agriculture.

Almond trees in Neve Ya’ar, site of the Volcani model farm. Photo courtesy of Volcani Center

Adapting to local conditions

Prof. Vinnie Altstein, a neurochemist at the Volcani Institute of Plant Protection and consultant to the Ministry of Agriculture. Photo courtesy of Prof. Altstein

“Yitzhak Volcani was such a visionary,” says Prof. Vinnie Altstein, a neurochemist at the Volcani’s Institute of Plant Protection and consultant to the chief scientist of the Ministry of Agriculture.

“People who’d been sent here by the Rothschild family [in the 1880s to establish farms and vineyards] brought varieties that were excellent in Europe but inedible here. Yitzhak understood we needed to make our own varieties that have good yield and ability to grow under local conditions of little water and diverse climatic regions,” she explains.

“He thought agriculture should be very diverse, focusing on crops as well as animals that could be adapted to conditions in Israel.”

In addition to basic and applied research from lab to field, the center provides practical training at universities and research institutes.

Prof. Hinanit Koltai, a senior researcher at the Volcani Center, aims to develop new drugs based on lesser-known substances in medical cannabis. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90

Volcani convinced Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, to start an institute in Rehovot to commercialize research from the agricultural station. In 1949, this became the world-renowned Weizmann Institute of Science.

Another of Volcani’s initiatives in Rehovot turned into the Faculty of Agriculture at the Hebrew University, established in 1952 and still a major source of agricultural research in Israel.

Golda Meir visiting a Volcani “Food Week” exhibition in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Volcani Center

Research highlights of the past century

Here are just 10 of the many Volcani Center innovations over the past century.

  • The Israeli cow is the world champion milk producer. A hundred years ago, milk production per cow was 700 liters per year, while now it’s 12,000 liters. The secret: the hybridized Holstein Friesian Israeli cow, a breed developed at the Volcani Center.
  • A series of durum wheat cultivars – each named after ministers of agriculture of Israel –is used to produce top-quality pasta. One of them was even grown in Italy by a leading pasta company.
Wheat growing in the Hula Valley. Photo courtesy of Hebrew Wikipedia
  • A closed-loop aquaculture system provides fish for food and wastewater for crops that can feed livestock.
  • Globally successful new fruits and vegetables such as easy-peeling Orri mandarin oranges and Or tangerines; the nutritious Oranghetti spaghetti squash; the TableSugar acorn squash; the Tomaisin cherry tomato; and the bright yellow Goldy zucchini squash.
Easy-to-peel Orri Jaffa mandarin oranges. Photo courtesy of the Plant Production and Marketing Board of Israel
  • A gene therapy that prevents day blindness in sheep was later applied to humans suffering from a disease that causes blindness by damaging the retina.
  • A machine that can pick out 95% of the seeds in a pomegranate,  extracting the seeds from 16 pomegranates per minute.
  • The Aliza grapefruit, named after Volcani researcher Aliza Vardi, is unique among grapefruits because it does not contain furanocoumarins, compounds that can interact dangerously with some medications.
  • A simple, quick, and inexpensive technique for detecting pesticide and drug residues on fruits and vegetables in water and air, based on the same principle as home pregnancy tests.
  • Insect sex pheromones are being used as “traps” for monitoring and disrupting the mating of harmful pests such as the red palm weevil that can infest date trees.
  • Hydroponic farming — growing plants in tanks with nutrient solutions and oxygen added to the roots artificially, thus saving land and water and preventing soil-borne diseases — got its start at the Volcani in the 1980s. This year, Volcani International Partnerships participated in a Growing Peace project to install an all-seasons hydroponic growing system in the South Tel Aviv food pantry to benefit asylum seekers.
A tailored hydroponic system for the Growing Peace hydroponic garden in Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy of Volcani International Partnerships

 What’s next?

There’s always lots of new research going on at the Volcani Center. Among the projects currently underway:

  • Raising commercial cocoa beans in Israel.
  • Growing a new peanut variety enriched with high-oleic acid.
  • Research into the health benefits of goat-milk cheese compared to cow-milk cheese.
  • Red, green and black chickpea varieties with specific uses, flavors and traits.
  • Establishment of the Helmsley Center for Artificial Intelligence Research in Agriculture
  • Determining proper growth conditions for medical cannabis and building a national cannabis gene bank for the use of authorized growers, scientists and breeders.
  • Investigating the potential of the tropical “miracle tree” Moringa oleifera and its desert relative, Moringa peregrina, as edible seed-oil and protein crops.

For more information about the Volcani Center, click here