While global population growth has slowed over the past half century, the number of people on the planet still increases every year – placing more and more strain on Earth’s resources as humanity strives to produce enough food for everyone.
Today, about one third of all the land on the face of the planet (approximately five billion hectares) is used for agriculture, and around 77 percent of that is used to rear and feed livestock. And as the human population grows, so too does the strain on the finite natural resources of the planet – and that includes feeding the animals who feed the people.
But now Israeli startup Rumafeed has come up with a way to boost the amount of animal feed produced worldwide by genetically modifying the currently discarded foliage from potato harvests and making it suitable for livestock.
Potato foliage contains glycoalkaloids, which makes it toxic, most likely as a deterrent to herbivores seeking to eat the crops, explains Prof. Haim Rabinowitch, the CTO of Rumafeed.
By removing this inedible chemical compound, he tells NoCamels, the foliage goes from waste byproduct to a plentiful, viable food source for herds.
Rabinowitch, a member of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, came up with the company’s patented process for what he insists is genetically “editing” the discarded greenery to extract the glycoalkaloid.
“With potatoes, we harvest the tubers, but we trash the foliage,” Rabinowitch explains, referring to the part of the plant that humans eat. “We have already invested in the land, the water, the fertilizers, the flood protection in order to grow this foliage. And yet when it comes to harvest time, we trash it and this is about one third of the total biological yield of potatoes.”
That one third, he says, translates to 150 to 200 million tons of potential animal feed every year that is left on the ground during harvest, often to the detriment of the future crops.
“It’s pulverized in the field and left in the field,” Rabinowitch says. “Nobody harvests it, nobody collects it. It’s actually a very bad practice because the leaves are covered with spores of fungi, of bacteria and of eggs of various insects, and when we leave it in the fields they are just waiting for the next crop.”
He explains that this is now a global practice, as in recent years the world has stopped using the former methods of foliage disposal – burning or chemical treatment – due to concerns that it would exacerbate climate change.
“That’s why pulverization is the only practice that we can do in order to trash the foliage,” he says.
Rabinowitch was motivated to develop the glycoalkaloid removal process as he feared that there would soon not be enough space on the planet to feed the animals involved in agriculture.
“It all starts with my 10 grandchildren,” he says.
The professor cites United Nations data showing that today about 2.3 billion people around the world (just over one quarter of the total global population) are suffering from varying degrees of hunger.
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“And the situation is going to get worse by 2050,” he warns.
Not only is there a lot of this foliage, the professor explains, but it is also rich in nitrogen and – more crucially – in protein.
In fact, he says, it is as nutritious as alfalfa hay, which has a protein content of 17 percent. Corn hay, by comparison, has a protein content of just six percent.
Furthermore, the potato hay could be a valuable source of income for farmers, fetching as much as $600 per hectare of land where the tubers are grown, with each hectare capable of producing 3.5 tons of potato hay.
(The toxic glycoalkaloid is also present in the potato tubers that we eat, in the form of solanine. But at least two thirds of the chemical is destroyed in the cooking process, rendering the vegetable safe for human consumption.)
The genetic modification process is not yet on the market, although the company does plan to approach the large potato producers with their genetically edited tubers.
The company was a runner up in this year’s Asper Prize – an annual competition to recognize startups using innovative technology in order to create a global positive impact.
Rumafeed does have investors, among them the Hebrew University’s own tech transfer company, Yissum, a major Israeli plant nursery and three “investing groups.”
Rabinowitch says this funding is sufficient for the current small-scale operation, “but in order to make the quantum leap to go from hundreds of thousands of tubers to hundreds of millions of tubers, we need more.”
The professor is so certain that the process is safe, he even tried the genetically modified crops out on his own family.
“It’s a potato,” he says. “It looks like a potato, it tastes like a potato. I fed my grandchildren with these potatoes and every one of them is still healthy.”