February 2, 2012, Updated September 11, 2012

Insects and fungi are no match for a 100% safe blend of edible oils formulated by an Israeli agricultural research institute.

Volcani scientist Samuel Gan-Mor.

Thin-skinned vegetables such as tomatoes and zucchini are susceptible to insect infestation and fungi, and even new organic pesticides are not completely safe, says Israeli agriculture scientist Samuel Gan-Mor.

He’s got a new approach that could revolutionize the way bugs are kept from crops: a mixture of edible, off-the-shelf canola or rapeseed oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil and even the slightly more expensive olive oil.

Seeds, the starting point of all oils, have developed complex evolutionary tricks to avoid being preyed upon. Unknown active ingredients in these oils, probably paired with the ability to block the breathing pathways of invertebrates and hamper their mobility, may explain why the oil solution developed by Gan-Mor and his colleagues works.

For years at Israel’s renowned government-run Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan, Gan-Mor has been working on optimizing industrial sprayers to cover more plant surface with less pesticide. The sprayers now sold worldwide by the Israeli companies Raz Spayers and Degania Sprayers.

The advanced sprayer is part of the package containing the blend of oils, along with an emulsifier. The product is being marketed as a new organic pesticide alternative that is 100 percent safe, even if used minutes before harvest. Chemical pesticides require a “cooling off” period between application and harvesting because of the health risks involved to people and wildlife.

Conventionally grown tomatoes, for instance, carry at least 35 pesticide residues, according to the 2008 US Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program.

Oil-based pest control is simple and inexpensive.

Some pesticides are hormone disruptors, cancer-causing agents or neurotoxins that can have harmful effects on the brain and on the growth and development of babies. Little is known about how these pesticides, which we can’t smell, see or taste on our produce, act in combination. Alternative earth-friendly solutions are much in demand.

Greasing the wheels of tomorrow’s pesticides

A variety of natural oils is already known to keep insects and fungi at bay, including castor oil. But since there are some toxins in castor oil, Gan-Mor ruled it out, he told ISRAEL21c.

Instead he started looking to simple, cheap cooking oils, like canola or soybean oil. The Volcani Institute, a Ministry of Agriculture Agricultural Research Organization, is partnering with a company called Shelef to have these oil formulations tested at 20 different farms in Israel.

Other harmless solutions that could be used don’t last more than a year in storage and can break down if not stored in a cool environment. Gan-Mor’s oil emulsion, created moments before use, avoids these problems.

“If I take oil and store it next to the farm in room temperature, then all I need is a small processing machine that will turn the oil into an emulsion. With very little preservative and surfactants, I am not making huge quantities like factories need to, and I can store it for three days as I need it,” Gan-Mor explains.

“The only problem with these ‘soft materials’ is that … they need to be applied often, about once a week, and the oils must be applied generously,” he says.

Smaller farms could share a sprayer machine, and basic materials are cheap – about $1 a liter for the oil, which is heavily diluted with water. All that’s needed besides the solution is access to electricity to run the sprayer.

Shelef is investigating and optimizing formulations to match specific crops and conditions, but is already selling a complete system (uri.yaffe@gmail.com) to interested farmers.

“The oil blends could be created to match the crop or the insect,” says Gan-Mor, who continues to work on making the agriculture industry less toxic to humankind.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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