In the last couple of years farmers in Sharona Settlement in Israel have had to get used to the new fields and greenhouses of their neighbors. Once in a while a farmer passes by on a tractor, looking jealously at his neighbors’ field across the fence, where wheat, rape and lately rice are grown. The impressive vision: rape flower fields, the plant which is used for canola oil, is a carpet of blooming yellow flowers you cannot miss, and wheat crops filled with impressive seeds. The crops are healthy and shiny, and oddly enough – bigger than normal.
Most of the older farmers don’t know that their new neighbors, who have been working these lands in the past three years, are employed by Kaiima, a start-up company funded by well-know Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv funds.
Most of Kaiima’s agricultural crops are not actually for sale. Kaiima is conducting extensive research into creating more sustainable and fertile crops without the need for genetic engineering. Should it succeed, Kaiima’s says its systems will be able to help in the global war against famine and in the shortage of energy resources.
The rise in food prices has been felt all around the world, and developing countries suffer most from it. According to the World Bank data, rising food prices since last June have pushed 44 million more into the poverty cycle and the number of those suffering from hunger is reaching one billion. Prices of flower and sugar, for example, have gone up by about 20 percent in one year, and cooking oil by 22 percent. In several countries, the price of wheat has jumped up alarmingly: in Kirghistan the price went up by about 50 percent in six months; in Bangladesh by 45 percent and in Mongolia 33 percent.
“In an age where prices of essential goods are rising and the global agriculture market has to deal with challenges greater than ever, crops that can produce a large yield of healthy seeds are an urgent need,” explains Dr. Doron Gal, CEO of Kaiima. “Today, international funds focus mostly on typical high-tech firms in Israel – but in my opinion, advanced agriculture is an important subject to take into consideration. This is a necessary and challenging field and its importance is only being recognized today. The famine and shortage of energy resources will require a lot from the global agriculture market while resources are thinning and climate change is reducing crops and yield. The demand for technological developments in agriculture is becoming larger and larger and I hope that Israel will encourage this area as it did others.”
The method: genetic duplication
When you look at Kaiima’s fields in the Galilee it’s hard not to be impressed. “Kaiima has increased yields in every vegetable or crop it has tested so far,” Gal says proudly, “and not in small percentiles. Our technology creates strong crops with greater potential. You can create higher yield, with bigger seeds, more sustainable plants or stronger roots, or just bigger numbers. We do this without genetic engineering. In high-tech you call it development, we call it cultivation.”
Kaiima’s system is indeed no genetic engineering – but genetic improvement. The agronomist Aaron Aaronson, a very important figure in Israeli history, discovered the original “mother” of wild wheat, which was later genetically altered several times. The “mother wheat” carried in its genes two sets of chromosomes. Unlike it, the wheat we use today has six sets of chromosomes, as a result of natural genome multiplying and cross-breeding with wild weed – and is more sustainable and more nutritious than its mother. Kaiimas system is based on a similar process.
“While most animals and all human beings carry in each cell two sets of chromosomes, plants are different. In order to keep safe, animals can use their legs and run. Plants can’t do that, which is why they’ve developed a special mechanism: they multiply their genome to survive. It’s possible to find more sustainable plants in deserts or poles. This is their reaction to surrounding pressure, and we use this evolution process.”
Another source of information for Kaiima is based on some cancer research, where a system was development to treat the genome in the cell without hurting its genetic stability. Kaiimas lab director, Dr. Limor Baruch, specialized in cancer research. “While in genetic engineering a foreign genome section is inserted into the cells’ nucleus, we preserve the original genome,” Baruch explains, “in a natural process of cell division, the genome is multiplied and later divided into two with special fibers. Kaiima has developed a technology that hurts these specific fibers directly, and so when the genome is multiplied the cell remains intact. Basically, this is the same process which the mother wheat went through ten thousand years ago. We do the same – only on a tighter schedule.” Since the process itself exits also in nature, the multiplied cells keep dividing normally, creating more multiplied cells.
“Genetic multiplying is a common technique, we haven’t invented it”, admits Gal, “The problem is that it has unwanted side effects. When an organism experiences hard mutations, evolution makes sure it won’t pass it on, and it does so by hurting the reproduction system.”
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“It’s possible to find a strawberry that’s been through traditional genome multiplication in almost every supermarket,” demonstrates Gal, “But if you look closely at the seeds on the strawberry you’ll find them missing or atrophied at best, unlike a regular strawberry, which has dark and clearly defined seeds.” Most of us, though, don’t really care how the seeds on our strawberries look like, but with crops in which the seeds themselves are the food, like wheat, corn and rice, preserving them is critical. Kaiima’s technology, the company claims, preserves the genetic stability of the plant, so it’s almost free of side effects – but not completely. One side effect they’re dealing with these days is the change in the ripening time of the corps. Multiplying the genome can prolong the ripening time considerably, a quality which farmers, who live on set dates of planting and harvesting, don’t really like. Kaiima is trying to solve this problem by choosing specific species that give early yield, so the multiplying of the genome “balances” the ripening time.
The success: rape to canola oil
According to Gal, “one wheat seed, if it is the right seed, will be able to alter the global hunger problem. With one perfect seed a new species could be developed which will be planted and yielded around the world.” Kaiimas biggest achievement so far is with rape, a crop they’ve managed to increase by 30 percent in one field alone.
“In international forums like the G5 or G20, they first speak of world hunger,” says Gal. “And their most important issue is developing new species of crops with higher yield. When we went for canola, we aimed to do exactly that.” According to the US Department of Agriculture, canola oil is today the third most important source of vegetable oil after soy and palm tree, and the second most important protein source in a meal. The Chinese government has also declared rape as a strategic crop.
“In the past eight years seed companies and leading institutes in the world have tried to increase the yield of canola using different means, but only registered small percentile success, ”says Gal. “In order to revolutionize this area of field, production must go up by at least 10 percent.” Next year Kaiima will expand its experiment in rape to 18 different sites around the world, among them the US, Argentina, China and Australia, in order to test the replication of the product.
Next: castor oil plant
Another revolution, claims Gal, will be in the energy sector. After rape, the next stage is the castor oil plant, which is known as a toxic wild plant – but is used as one of the main sources of diesel and for plastic substitutes. “Our goal is to compete with oil,” says Gal, “you can increase yield to such a level that castor oil could compete with common oil. As long as the price of a barrel is over $65, it will pay off financially. This price was tagged three years ago, and since then the price per barrel has been almost consistently above that.”
To reach profitability, Kaiima needs to reach at least 6,000 kilo per hectare (10,000 square meters) of harvest. “We tested it”, says Gal, “We compared our seeds to other seeds around the world – China, France and the US. After three years of development we created species that overcome them by 20 percent. We are approaching our target crop and already have more productive castor crops.” Kaiima is already producing castor oil seeds for bi-diesel projects around the world and recently began experimenting and researching sugar cane with British Petroleum.
“I was asked how can we compete with Monsanto,” concludes Gal. “They have hundreds of species cultivators, we have only six. Even if they can multiply the genome as we do, their army of cultivators have more power than we ever could. Well, I looked this up on Google, and checked which tomato type is the most common in California. The answer was AB2, developed in Israel. You can find it in almost every American bottle of ketchup”.