“There is great awareness worldwide that climate change will dramatically affect food security, and will change agriculture as we know it,” said Michal Levi, chief scientist and senior deputy director general of Israel’s Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry.

“We are all looking for sustainable ways to produce food and to find new protein sources, and in Israel there is a lot of innovation and research,” she added.

Already a world leader in alternative protein startups, Israel is now seeking to be a significant player in the new “blue tech” space.

Blue tech includes aquaculture—the science of harvesting protein sources sustainably from water rather than land.

Michal Levi, chief scientist and senior deputy director general at the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture. Photo by Ethan Van Leeuwen.

But aquaculture can be done even in the desert, with the right technologies.

That was one of the themes explored at “Agrisrael-Sea the Future,” the first International Conference on Food from the Sea and the Desert, held in Eilat from Oct. 18 to Oct. 20.

Organized by the Agriculture Ministry, the conference drew entrepreneurs, researchers and government officials from Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Chile, Cyprus, Ecuador, Jordan, Iceland, Malta, Morocco, Netherlands, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, among others.

A panel at the International Conference on Food from the Sea and the Desert, Oct. 2022. Photo by Rotem Lahav.

Eilat, future center for aquaculture

The Israeli government plans to invest 170 million shekels ($7.6 million) over the next five years in education and infrastructure to make Eilat—and the greater Eilat region, called Eilot—a national and international center for producing food from both the sea and the desert.

“We will bring in researchers and students and we’ll promote areas where blue-tech startups can set up, do pilots and test their technologies,” said Levi.

The Agriculture Ministry is collaborating with neighbors, including Egypt, in sustainable ventures to produce fish, algae and other nutritious edibles.

This is an opportunity for Israeli aquaculture research to spill into the startup world, said Levi.

“Ocean fishing today is basically hunting, the only place commercial hunting is still happening,” she says, “and we believe it should be done in a way that does not harm the ocean and endanger fish. The main issue is to learn how to grow fish in captivity because by their nature they do not reproduce in captivity.”

Bahraini Minister of Agriculture Wael Bin Nasser Al Mubarak, left, and Israeli Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Oded Forer sign a declaration of cooperation at the Agrisrael-Sea the Future conference in Eilat, Oct. 19, 2022. Photo by Rotem Lahav.

A closed loop

Colors Farm on Moshav Hazeva has been accomplishing that goal in a variety of innovative ways since 1999.

For the past seven years, Colors Farm has run a closed circular aquaponics system to raise ornamental fish alongside greens such as lettuce and basil, all year round, using recirculated water and without fertilizer or pesticides.

“The fish produce all the nitrogen and nutrients that the plants need, and the plants bring back the water to the fish in very good quality,” said Colors Farm CEO Ran Epstein.

The leafy greens—including more than 100,000 lettuce heads per month—are sold in Israel’s largest supermarket chain. The ornamental fish are sold worldwide.

“If everyone worked like we do, agriculture in Israel would consume 90 percent less water,” said Epstein.

Aquaponic lettuce growing at Colors Farm in the Arava desert. Photo courtesy of Colors Farm.

Colors Farm is the only aquaculture company in the CRISPRIL  consortium formed by the Israel Innovation Authority.

The 10-member consortium has researchers and entrepreneurs working together on next-gen genomic editing projects in sectors including biomedicine (vaccines and pharmaceuticals), biofuels and food.

Colors Farm uses CRISPR genomic editing, as well as other technologies developed domestically, to produce fast-growing, disease-resistant fish, mainly for the Asian market.

“Our plan is to share our R&D with partners around the world, because it’s impossible to export enough volume from Israel,” said Epstein.

Ornamental fish are grown at Colors Farm in an indoor closed-loop system that also produces leafy greens. Photo courtesy of Colors Farm.

Algae: More than a sushi wrapper

The dry, hot weather of Eilot provides the perfect climate for growing protein-, vitamin- and mineral-rich algae and microalgae.

Several Israeli companies are raising these simple aquatic plants for use in food additives and supplements, natural pigments, dyes, biodegradable plastics and biofuels.

AlgaeNite raises a special strain of nitrogen-fixing microalgae, using hydroponics and solar energy, for applications including meat/fish analogs, organic fertilizer, cosmetics and bioplastic.

SimpliiGood markets flash-frozen spirulina, a super-nutritious alga, in six countries.

Kibbutz Keturah-based Algatech, acquired by Solabia in 2019, makes AstaPure Arava astaxanthin, a powerful microalgae-derived antioxidant.

Roni Sussman, formerly the saltwater algae head biologist for Algatech, is the director of AquaculTech, a new blue-tech initiative of the Israeli ministries of agriculture and economy, the Israel Innovation Authority and the nonprofit Israeli Innovation Institute.

Aquaculture advantages

AquaculTech aims to advance Israeli aquaculture by matching aquaculture entrepreneurs with investors, researchers, private and governmental partners, as well as setting up pilot sites where startups can test blue technologies.

“All aquaculture is not as ecological as we would want, so we are promoting new approaches such as RAS—recirculating aquaculture systems,” said Sussman.

Examples of companies using RAS include Colors Farm, above, and AquaMaof in Rosh HaAyin.

Growing food with seawater instead of drinking water, solar power instead of fossil fuel, and close to the market are also key to sustainability.

“Today it’s very clear that food production needs to be done where you are. You don’t want to buy fish from Norway forever,” said Sussman.

“You have to be assured that if something happens—viruses, security issues, shipping delays—you can produce your own food.”

Growing algae, fish and vegetables in pools rather than open land is another game changer.

“Classic agriculture uses a lot of land,” said Sussman, “and 80% of agricultural areas today grow food for animals that will be food. We don’t have enough land to keep doing that, so we have to produce food differently.”

Aquaculture is one answer.

With aquaculture, “You produce more protein per square meter than on land, and it’s much healthier to eat fish and plants than beef,” said Sussman.

Punching above its weight

Sussman believes Israel has an outsized role to play in helping the world produce food from the sea and the desert.

Not only is Israel one of the largest intellectual property exporters in aquaculture, she pointed out, but Israelis can be found in management or consulting positions at aquaculture ventures from Australia to Iceland to Singapore.

“When I started communicating with companies abroad, I was amazed to meet so many Israelis,” she said. “We are a very motivated power in this industry.”

Tel Aviv is listed at No. 25 in the Global Blue Economy Ecosystem Ranking just released by Startup Genome of San Francisco.

Among other Israeli companies that took part in the International Conference on Food from the Sea and the Desert were E-FISHient Protein, Vertical Field, V-Corals, sea2cell and Enzootic.

This article was first published by Israel21c.

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