Chemical engineer Dganit Vered discovered something that shifted her entire career focus when she led a multinational R&D team of 250 employees for Israeli seed breeder Hazera from 2015 to 2017.
“When I traveled around the world and met my team members, I saw the problems were much bigger than could be solved through the seeds,” she tells ISRAEL21c.
Having worked for 17 years at Intel Israel and then in pharma and seed company R&D, Vered thought she could help.
Last May, she became CEO of Smart Agro Fund, a public R&D partnership founded in 2020 to advance startups addressing big problems in agriculture. (This must be her destiny: dganit is a flower growing near grain fields, and vered is a rose.)
With the world population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, growers must produce more food under increasingly difficult conditions: extreme weather and severe shortages of labor, water, pollinating bees and arable land.
“At the end of the day, we will need to increase yields by about 50 percent, with 50 percent less resources, in order to feed the world,” Vered says. “That’s where we are heading with climate change.”
Smart Agro Fund now has six portfolio companies and Vered has become familiar with the vast landscape of approximately 350 Israeli ag-tech startups leading the world in areas from precision irrigation to wastewater reuse to seed breeding.
Here are some of the solutions they have for today’s most pressing issues in food production.
Soil erosion is a major factor in the loss of arable land. Soil that is worn out from intensive growing and chemical spraying produces fewer crops and more carbon emissions.
Surprisingly, agriculture accounts for about 27% of CO2 emissions worldwide.
“We see soil becoming much less fertile and losing its strong ability to hold carbon because of agricultural practices such as tilling — when the soil is turned and the carbon-capturing bacteria underneath get exposed to air and sun,” explains Vered.
This situation has given rise to the regenerative agriculture movement.
“It’s about keeping the soil healthy, strengthening the soil’s content and treating it with respect,” says Vered.
Several multinational conglomerates pay to implement regenerative agriculture practices on the farms that supply them. These include off season “cover crops” to replenish the soil and precision irrigation rather than flood or trough irrigation.
For instance, PepsiCo is introducing Israeli N-Drip gravity drip irrigation to its growers in 60 countries, aiming to cut CO2 emissions by as much as 83% and methane emissions up to 78%.
Other regenerative agriculture techniques are livestock grazing, biological pesticides and crop rotation.
“Specific crops have specific impacts on the soil and if you keep growing the same thing the soil gets depleted,” says Vered. “Rotating crops like onions and potatoes is very common, but it is not done enough.”
Many Israeli companies enable regenerative agriculture by helping farmers reduce their use of chemicals.
GreenEye Technologies, for example, reduces herbicide use with an AI-powered smart spraying system that treats only the food crops and not the weeds.
Metabolic Insights uses cutting-edge technology to isolate and commercialize plant-based compounds for crop protection and productivity.
GroundWork BioAg developed a low-cost process to produce mycorrhiza, a fungus that works in symbiosis with plant roots to reduce fertilizer requirements and help plants cope with stressors such as drought.
“This is important because we are going into a pretty big situation of water shortage worldwide,” says Vered.
The labor shortage (and associated human resources costs) is pushing the evolution of mechanized alternatives for unskilled farm tasks, says Vered.
Blue White Robotics offers a kit that makes any tractor fully autonomous, plus software enabling one human operator to manage a fleet of autonomous farm vehicles such as tractors, robots and drones.
Automato Robotics is creating an automated workforce for greenhouses. Controlled from a single platform, these robots can harvest, spray, pollinate and inspect indoor crops such as tomatoes.
Tevel Aerobotics Technologies is piloting (no pun intended) its Flying Autonomous Robots that pick fruit in orchards of any size. Artificial intelligence directs them to the fruits ripe for picking.
Darwin, an Italian-Spanish fruit harvesting platform creator, has partnered with Tevel in creating the world’s first fully commercial integrated autonomous fruit-harvesting system.
Greenhouse Robotic Worker (GRoW) technology from MetoMotion harvests greenhouse tomatoes and analyzes data for yield estimation and stress detection.
Biotechnology also has a role to play in regenerative agriculture, says Vered. “Biotechnology is strong in Israel, and it is making plants more robust or easier to harvest or increasing yields.”
BetterSeeds, for instance, alters the architecture of many types of crops to enable machine picking and increase yield.
“Another big problem in world agriculture is the decline of bees. We are very efficiently killing bees and they’re on the edge of extinction,” says Vered.
“Israel is very strong in technologies dealing with this problem, and the solutions out there are very wide.”
Polly, a robotic platform from Arugga AI Farming, performs artificial pollination in tomato greenhouses. Riding on tracks between rows of plants, Arugga’s robots use AI to determine each flower’s readiness to be pollinated. This neatly solves two problems: lack of bees and labor.
Edete Precision Technologies for Agriculture offers “Artificial Pollination as a Service” that’s been proven to increase the yield of almond orchards. The system mirrors the action of bees by collecting, storing and distributing pollen to the flowers.
Smart Hives from BeeHero add monitoring, data collection and automated actionable insights to increase the efficiency of natural pollination.
Robotic, solar-powered BeeHomes from BeeWise each house 24 colonies, allowing beekeepers to treat hives and care for their bees remotely with the help of computer vision and AI. BeeWise just raised $80 million in a Series C round in which one of the participants was Sanad Abu Dhabi.
To read about more Israeli solutions for the bee shortage, click here.
In a future article, we’ll see how Israel is tackling another big agriculture problem: the 30% of produce that never makes it from field to market.