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Israel’s oily approach to natural pest control

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Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

While agricultural production must keep at a steady clip to feed a hungry world, new earth-friendly solutions are sought to reduce the chemical load used to grow crops for food. An Israeli blend of everyday cooking oils now challenges the slew of problems linked to pesticide use in monoculture crops.

The innovation is in the recipe and the application, says Dr. Samuel Gan-Mor from the Israel Ministry of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Organization at the Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan, Israel.

The potent blend of edible oils innovated by the scientists on his team can be sprayed once a week to keep insects and fungi from munching on thin-skinned vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini and peppers, and also grains such as oats, barley and wheat.

Based on inexpensive, off-the-shelf oils that have zero toxic effects on humans, the secret blend, which ends up as an emulsified mixture with water, includes canola (or rapeseed) oil, soybean, cotton and even a little more expensive olive oil.

An eco-friendly system

The pesticide alternative, Gan-Mor explains, is a whole system, complete with an emulsifier and sprayer to cover more crop per drop. An added benefit is that it can be stored close to the fields for periods longer than the limited one-year allowance for traditional pesticides, whose many active compounds lose their potency especially when they are sitting in the sun.

Gan-Mor is proud to explain that this system not only circumvents existing limitations in conventional pesticides beyond the safety issues to humans, but it is also really cheap.

Volcani scientist Samuel Gan-Mor

“The main goal,” he says, “is to supply vegetables and edible food and agricultural products with no pesticides that are harmful to the consumer. Although there is an organic set of pesticides, even these present some materials that are toxic to people. I chose a series of edible oils, and in particular those used for food.”

For instance, he didn’t use castor oil, which contains some toxins, even though it can be a good anti-pest substance. “All the oils we are talking about are those we use to eat. There is even no problem with spraying them on the day of the harvest. This is the main initiative here, to create a ‘soft pesticide’ – one which is not very aggressive but which can cover the plant much more accurately and uniformly than other solutions.”

Some of the plant strains that the team is using for the oils are being grown in the Arava Desert in Israel, and the patent-pending formulation is being tested in a number of “recipes” for optimal efficacy in varying plant crops. The formulation is as top-secret as the spice mixture at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Fighting aphids, mites and mildew

One of Gan-Mor’s areas of expertise is spraying technologies for farming equipment, now used by commercial farms around the world and marketed by Israeli companies such as Raz Sprayers and Degania Sprayers.

“I started developing sprayers that are more uniform [in output] than the commercial ones and, together with commercial firms, we have sprayers for almost any crop.”

The entire package – with the oil, emulsifier and sprayer combined – is now being tested at 20 pilot farms throughout Israel, and is marketed by an agricultural products company called Shelef. (Commercial inquiries on the new oil pesticide can be directed to Uri Yaffe at Shelef.)

Volcani, a government-run research institute, will derive profits from the sales of the system, which can produce 200 to 400 liters of safe pesticide per day.

Effective against little critters like mites and aphids, the oil system also appears to help arm a plant against powdery mildew, a type of fungus that can cause millions of dollars of damage every year to farmers’ crops.

The cheap solution can cost about $1 a liter for the oil itself, much cheaper than industrial chemical-grade solutions, and can be stored at room temperature with a little bit going a long way. To boot, there have been no signs of pest resistance to the system.

The only limitation to farmers in remote areas, says Gan-Mor, is the necessity of being close to an electrical source.

A complicated mode of action

Though the oil cocktail is effective, its inventor doesn’t know exactly what the mechanism is that causes the insects to die.

“No one really knows the mode of action,” he says. What he does know is that the emulsion makes it hard for insects, invertebrates and fungi to thrive on the plants in question. The oil could be blocking the breathing pores of the insects and invertebrates, but the science is likely more complicated, Gan-Mor believes. The oil certainly restricts the movement of the pests, but he also thinks some evolutionary defense mechanism locked into the DNA of the oil is at play.

“Since oils are made from seeds, evolution gave seeds a kind of mechanism to fight fungi and insects naturally,” he says. This means there are components in oil, even basic oils, which can inherently repel insects.

The Volcani-innovated solution obviously is attractive to any farmer who wants to cut down on the use of expensive and potentially harmful chemical pesticides. Smaller farms, or farming cooperatives, can eventually work together to share one spraying tool, and use it on a rolling basis, Gan-Mor says. This will keep costs down even further.

Meanwhile, experiments continue on optimizing the oil emulsion for specific crops.

This is one of hundreds of research projects taking place at the government-run institute, named for its founder and first director Yitzhak Elazari Volcani (1880-1955). It was the first of its kind to be established, even before the founding of the state, to foster agricultural development.

Today the institute runs experiments throughout Israel, looking for answers to problems with garden crops, farm animals, soil and water, food technology and more. The center attracts a large number of foreign delegations to Israel each year to learn the Israeli methods of farming and working the land, and cooperates on a range of international projects.