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More food, on less land, for more people

Innovating with sensors and caterpillars, two Israeli companies are making strides toward helping to feed the world's population in the coming years

Climate changes are harming crop yields and farmers’ livelihoods worldwide. At the same time, the 21st century has ushered in the fourth agricultural revolution: precision agriculture. Two Israeli companies – SupPlant and Flying Spark – have developed technologies yielding dramatic effect and that are committed to the great challenge of feeding the world’s population in the years to come.

It is customary to list four agricultural revolutions: the first three were the industrial mechanization revolution in the 19th century, and the GM (genetically modified) seeds and pressurized irrigation revolutions, both of which occurred in the 20th century.

The fourth revolution, occurring in the 21st century, is called precision agriculture and is based on advanced technological tools such as Artificial Intelligence, sensors etc. that enable a much smarter decision-making process. The significance of each such revolution is the ability to grow more food on less land while feeding more people.

Climate changes are dramatically affecting agriculture. Every farmer gets up each morning faced with dozens of decisions that affect crop yield and most of these are related to the weather. Climate changes, that have made the weather far less typical of the actual season and significantly more extreme in both temperature (hot and cold) and rainfall, lead to serious crop loss and increase the need for “fourth-wave” technologies.

The Israelis Who Talk with Plants

“Agriculture is one of the most traditional industries and it’s not easy to communicate with plants, but with today’s technology, we have now entered the fourth revolution that surpasses all the achievements of the previous ones”, says Ori Ben Ner, CEO of SupPlant. In many areas, SupPlant is even leading the way”.

SupPlant is an Israeli startup that has developed an agricultural irrigation technology based on Artificial Intelligence. “Our expertise is to take tools that were developed during the 1980s as research tools that are installed on the plant and were aimed at drawing conclusions about them, and implement these conclusions on the ground”, Ben Ner explains. “The sensors sit on the fruit or vegetable and measure the rate of change in the micron range. We calibrate this data with the ground, the amount of water, fertilizer, and the climate. In other words, we know how to talk with the plant – we know how it behaves and how to reacts.

SupPlant has two products: one for large-scale farmers that is based on the installation of sensors in the area where the crops are grown. The sensors provide the best irrigation platform of its kind in the world, as they constantly adjust, supply weekly meteorological forecasts, and accordingly adapt the irrigation system based on the weather conditions, no matter how extreme it may be.

The second product, which operates without sensors, is intended for small farmers who have less than 10 hectares of farming area and who constitute 98% of the world’s farmers. This development takes the entire database and insights gathered over time. It relates to specific data such as the type of soil the farmer is cultivating, connects to existing platforms and a cellphone, and provides each farmer with a simple and precise irrigation program. This product is intended primarily for orchard crops such as citrus fruit, grapes, avocado, mango, and nuts.

SupPlant originally developed an autonomous irrigation system: “It was the best technology in the world, but we failed to sell it”, Ben Ner explains. “We told the farmers to take their foot off the gas, to feed the data into the system, and to activate it. We installed 400 such systems around the world and the results were fantastic but no one gave us control over more than a few hectares because, ultimately, letting a computer control crop yields involves trust”.

Nevertheless, SupPlant discovered something unprecedented and more interesting from a climate change perspective when developing that system: every irrigation decision in the world is based on an irrigation coefficient – a number between 0-1 that indicates how much water the ground absorbs for each and every crop, area, etc. Research institutes usually engage in the development of the irrigation coefficient that lasts for about 10 years, but climate change renders the result inaccurate.

In contrast, SupPlant’s system produces a new irrigation coefficient every six weeks. The system takes the data on weather and crop loss, checks the database for the most similar scenario it can identify, and uses that information. This enables us to provide access to the technology for the population that needs it the most, for example, in India and Equatorial Africa. “Our system gives them access to this vital information at ridiculous prices, like a dollar a month”, says Ben Ner.

“In addition to the irrigation, we are introducing further agrotechnical functions of which we have gained insights such as fertilizers etc. I provide the farmer with irrigation system that enables optimal farming and saves water. The effect is dramatic: for small farmers this can double crop yields. The system definitely makes a drastic difference, certainly in countries like Kenya which suffers from a terrible drought”, adds Bar Ner who notes that “we received two significant grants from the Innovation Authority to develop some very interesting things”.

“We mainly work in Australia, Mexico, South Africa, South America, and, with the Abraham Accords, have now signed a strategic agreement in Morocco. We are presently finishing a pilot in date farming in the UAE that led to a 70% saving in water. We are also currently working on an agreement whereby, within the next three years, we will provide irrigation systems for all the trees in the UAE”.

SupPlant has grown over the last three years from 20 employees to 50 and now has three subsidiaries. Sales have grown ten-fold. In 2021, the company was chosen as one of the 100 biggest inventions of Time Magazine.

The company’s vision is an ambitious one: “We aim to stand digitally behind every irrigation operation on the planet”, says Bar Ner. “With the sensor-less product, we aim to sell to a few dozen million users in India. For the product that includes sensors, the goal is 20% market share by 2025. We aim to be extremely focused and gain a significant market share “.

The Protein You’ve Never Eaten

Eran Gronich, CEO of Flying Spark, a veteran entrepreneur who has already founded and sold several startups, heard a TED lecture in 2013 by a Dutch professor that focused on the question of how it would be possible to feed the world’s population, projected to number approximately 9 billion in 2040. The professor’s answer was that insects are the obvious food solution, one that will also address the climate change challenge.

That lecture was a turning point for Gronich and led him to establish the Flying Spark startup. In mid-2016, Flying Spark joined the ‘The Kitchen’ Hub, jointly established by Strauss and the Innovation Authority.

“We started working in the same two fields we have focused on throughout the process”, Gronich explains. “The first is biology – developing technology and control over the lifecycle of caterpillar and flies, and developing technology and methodical protocols for growing them etc. The second field is food – developing an industrial process that transforms the caterpillars into protein and oil, thereby creating two products in the same process”.

The Flying Spark team also developed different applications in the laboratory that demonstrate the diverse range of possible uses for the protein they produce from the caterpillars – from meat and fish substitutes via pastries to sweets, pasta, and breakfast cereals.

Growing caterpillars for protein production is part of the precision agriculture revolution. Today’s animal protein farming consumes crazy amounts of resources. The processes are extremely inefficient and not only use large quantities of water and land but pollute them as well. Whole forests are cut down to produce food for these animals.

“Growing plant-based protein such as soybean or peas is also done in one dimension, whereas we grow the caterpillars in a vertical farming method i.e., on trays in a kind of high-rise towers”, Gronich explains. We are at least twice more efficient than soybean or any other agricultural crop. Furthermore, the growing period is very short and we “sow and harvest” every day. In other words, we have 365 cycles a year, compared to livestock for example, where every growing cycle takes 18 months”.

Three central reasons led Flying Spark to choose the fruit fly caterpillar. The first is environmental: the growing process is the most sustainable method there is and doesn’t involve any methane gas emissions. As mentioned above, the growing process takes place with vertical farming that uses 99% less land and water than livestock, for example. Moreover, the growing process creates almost no waste because it uses 100% of the insect.

The second reason is the speed of the process – only 7 days from eggs to harvest of the caterpillar during which it multiplies its body mass 250 times. Each female lays about 350 eggs during her life, also contributing to an extremely rapid growing process.

The third reason is nutritional: the final product – in the form of a white powder – has very high nutritional values, with almost 70% protein that contains minerals such as iron, magnesium, and calcium, as well as “good” fatty acids and no cholesterol. And if you were wondering about the powder’s flavor, Gronich has reassuring news: “The taste is very neutral (similar to flour), and the powder can be used to prepare a wide range of foods. It is a winner on all fronts”.

Everyone Can Participate in Realizing the Vision

In 2017, Flying Spark was chosen out of more than one thousand companies to participate in a 3-month accelerator program run by the Swedish company Ikea. During the Covid period, the company took advantage of the Israeli stock market investors’ supportive attitude towards small startups and was listed for trading on the stock exchange in 2021. The stock issue was intended to finance the opening in Thailand of the first production factory of its kind in the world for growing caterpillars for producing protein.

“We are, in essence, a company that produces protein”, Gronich emphasizes. “Protein is consumed not only by humans, but by every living creature. Thai Union – who are both our investor and clients (it is the world’s largest tuna company, with a 15% share of the global market) – has a very large department that produces petfood from fish leftovers. They look at the caterpillar like fish and their advanced strategic approach to protein is that it can be broken down – like fish – according to different needs.

“We are starting with the world of aquaculture (feeding fish), will continue with protein for pets and oil for cosmetics, and then progress to food for humans”, Gronich explains. “The petfood industry is looking for sustainable solutions and, via its growing process, our protein enables a very environment-friendly solution”, Gronich says. “So far, we have developed several petfood products together with Thai Union. Once our factory starts operating, we will be able to produce the necessary commercial quantities”.

Flying Spark believes in collaborations and is therefore working with partners in all fields. “We simply cannot do or understand everything by ourselves”, Gronich explains. “We are therefore collaborating with several companies from Thailand and Japan”.

Flying Spark is presently building a factory in Thailand that will be ready by the middle of 2022, as well as offices and new labs in Israel. “This is a very new industry that has existed for only a decade or so”, Gronich says. “There are companies that produce protein from grasshoppers, crickets, black soldier fly caterpillar and others, but we are the only ones producing protein from fruit fly caterpillar”.

As far as regulation is concerned, Gronich explains that there are no special regulatory requirements for animal feed or petfood in Asia. The company has begun working on the regulatory requirements for protein intended for human consumption because in this field, its products are considered “novel food” i.e., a new food requiring regulation.

Gronich stresses that Flying Spark plans to become a high-quality global protein producer with a product that is both healthy and sustainable. The company will serve all sectors of the food industry: humans, pets, and other animals. According to him, this is a huge market in which there will be a large shortage. Another of Flying Spark’s advantages is that its factories can be built anywhere in the world and at any size, regardless of the local climate.

“The collaboration with the Innovation Authority is what enabled us to start out. They are the ones who invested the initial funds. If the Authority hadn’t believed in our initiative and vision, maybe none of this would have been possible”.

About the Author
Dror Bin is CEO of the Israel Innovation Authority, an independent public entity that operates for the benefit of the Israeli innovation ecosystem and Israeli economy as a whole.
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