Salad Days

The revolutionary work of a couple of professors from Rehovot in the 1960s and '70s made locally developed tomatoes ripe for investment.

Poet and playwright Natan Alterman left a noticeable mark on Israeli culture: His poems, books, plays and personal columns in Haaretz and the now-defunct Davar turned him into one of the most prominent figures in local history. But Alterman made another contribution that is quite important, in the area of agriculture, but few know about it: Alterman, who studied agronomy in France, was one of the people who is believed to have brought marmande tomato seeds to Israel, which went on to dominate the market for many years. Another version of the story says it was actually pioneer and author Shlomo Zemach - who studied agriculture in a small city in Provence - who brought the seeds here.

One way or another, the marmande quickly became accustomed to local conditions, and until the 1960s was the main species cultivated here. The problem was that the marmande bore ugly, misshapen red tomatoes whose flavor was not very good, and they were used mainly in the preparation of tomato juice or shakshuka (the popular tomato-based egg dish ). This wasn't only the case in Israel. Some 40 percent of the tomato yield around the world was discarded by growers, sellers and consumers. No one dreamed of exporting tomatoes from Israel then, because after five days on a boat from Haifa to Marseille, they were soft and unmarketable. Air transport was expensive, and didn't improve the situation much, as in most cases the tomatoes arrived in a soft state anyway and couldn't be sold in Europe.

Daniel Tchetchik

At that time, Prof. Haim Rabinowitch was just starting out as a researcher in the agriculture faculty at the Hebrew University in Rehovot. "In order to market tomatoes beyond the areas where they were grown," Rabinowitch recalls, "the Americans developed a method by which they were picked while green, kept in refrigerated storage, and allowed to redden by an artificial process, using ethylene gas, just before sale."

Thus, growers in California and Florida sent their produce north to the big markets of New York, Chicago and other large cities. When they received an order, they ripened the prepicked tomatoes, loaded them on trucks or trains, and sent them out on trips that took three to five days. The tomatoes arrived in the northern markets appealingly red, but because they were not vine-ripened the consumer received red tomatoes that tasted like green ones.

Rabinowitch: "One day, a Canadian tomato grower found a plant in his fields on which the tomatoes remained yellow, like unripe ones. They tasted terrible, even worse than the unripe ones. The grower could have uprooted the plant and the story would have ended there, but he did something intelligent. He called a tomato scientist from the experimental station nearby and asked him to see what had happened to the plant. The researcher took several of the strange tomatoes and examined their genetics. He discovered that a mutation had occurred, as happens sometimes in plants and animals. This mutation did not allow the tomato to ripen, and also slowed down the softening process, thereby granting it a shelf life of many months without refrigeration."

A few years passed and the same thing occurred in a tomato field in California. These tomatoes were also given to a scientist, and the results of the research were similar to those in Canada. Articles were written about the phenomenon and published in professional literature around the world. Everyone agreed that these mutations were suitable only for research about ripening, since the tomatoes described there could not be used in daily life.

"At Hebrew University we did not take these conclusions as a given," says Rabinowitch, "and decided to see how the mutations would express themselves in other varieties of tomato. We hoped to create a genetic combination that would yield ripe, red tomatoes on the one hand, but which would also have a shelf life of several weeks rather than a few days."

Rabinowitch joined forces with Prof. Nachum Kedar, his "teacher and guide" at the university. The pair prepared a small, experimental plot where they produced thousands of hybrids.

"We planted seeds, harvested, grafted, and planted seeds and harvested again until one Friday - October 5, 1973, the night before the Yom Kippur War - we examined the tomatoes we'd picked from the vines and ... Eureka! We had it," says Rabinowitch.

"A plant that grew from one of the genetic combinations we'd created bore red tomatoes with a long shelf life. Two weeks after harvesting, their texture remained the same as the day they were picked. They continued to be firm, did not spoil, and their taste was more than reasonable. The amazing thing was that this happened after such a long time, during which we produced thousands of combinations, and conducted a whole series of experiments. In the end, it happened: We created the desired combination."

'Useless' discovery

The discovery was the basis for the beginning of an expensive and complex development process. Rabinowitch and Kedar tried to interest universities and businesses in their research, but without success. "Everyone told us that many scientists around the world had determined that it was impossible to produce such [a hybrid] and improbable that two people from Rehovot were right about their claims, which contradicted the model accepted by everyone; that [the discovery] was useless for agriculture and nothing would come of it," Rabinowitch recounts.

But 40 years later, it turns out that Rabinowitch was absolutely right. Since his discovery, he has conducted a long string of breakthrough studies that have contributed more than $1.25 billion to Israel's agricultural exports. "When you're told that your research won't lead anywhere, it is probably a sign that you should continue," he says.

Rabinowitch and Kedar's studies completely changed the paradigm of agricultural economics in Israel, and gave an unprecedented push to the export of vegetable seeds and the transition to high-tech farming, which is not dependent on large plots of land or large amounts of water. This same type of agriculture is also likely in the future to reduce the need for large numbers of foreign workers, on which Israeli agricultural production and export depend today. This kind of farming, Rabinowitch predicts, is the agriculture of the future.

How did you manage to develop new varieties when seed companies sell their products around the world for millions of dollars?

Rabinowitch: "We began working on our own because we believed in our discovery, and continued to seek a funding source. After several years, we encountered an Israeli lawyer who was looking for people with crazy ideas and found us. Even though he and his partners did not understand much about agricultural biology, they were enthusiastic and established the LSL Biotechnologies corporation, in which venture capital could be invested. While that lawyer was only familiar with the tomatoes in his salad, he and his partners had faith in us and we were convinced [to work with them]. They brought the funding and we made a commitment to allow them to market the results, if there were any.

"After additional years of development, the plants in our experimental plot began to yield red, ripe tomatoes with a long shelf life. This result captivated the owners of large vegetable farms in Mexico where, like Florida, the tomatoes were picked when they were green, and the growers did not enjoy the relative advantages of their proximity to the U.S., and the cheap cost of labor in Mexico. The new tomato, based on our research, was of a higher quality than those from Florida, and Mexican farmers could export it to large American markets at a premium price."

The scientists' discovery changed the entire world market in tomatoes. It enlarged production by preventing quick spoilage - the 40 percent that was previously unmarketable. Previously, farmers had to throw away tomatoes that reddened on the vine, since they were unsalable, and wholesalers and retailers discarded produce that did not sell within a couple of days. At home, unused tomatoes that softened were also thrown away. The results of the studies allowed tomatoes to be exported from Israel by sea; the voyage to Europe took several days, but the tomatoes arrived as fresh and flavorful as the day they were picked.

How did your work enable the production of tomato seeds?

"The research and development of tomato varieties with a long shelf life was soon widely recognized and created a demand among consumers and marketers around the world. Farmers responded quickly and sought to obtain the seeds. At this point it is important to say that all these varieties are hybrids, which themselves yield seeds that do not produce the desired fruit. It is thus possible for the producer of the new variety to protect his investment: A farmer who buys tomatoes of the protected variety cannot grow the same tomato from its seeds. He can raise these tomatoes only if he buys seeds for the hybrid from the owner of the rights each time he plants."

How were the rights to the new varieties, which were sold to Mexicans, returned to Israel?

"The Mexicans bought the seeds for the new varieties from LSL, a company that produced them in Israel. At a certain stage, the international seed company Seminis bought a large number of shares in LSL, and afterward sold them back to the original owners, who sold them to the French seed company Genetix a few years ago. The companies operating in Israel today - Gedera Seeds, Genetix and others - produce the seeds for local farmers and for those living in the Mediterranean Basin, Europe, Mexico and other countries. The value of tomato-seed exports amounts to $50 million a year, which has added up to more than $1.25 billion until now. Hebrew University, to which the Rehovot campus belongs, also enjoys royalties from tomato-variety development, adding up to $70 million to date, an important addition to the institution's budget."

The results of research by Rabinowitch and his staff are applied today to all the tomato varieties grown in Israel, and in countries that have acquired seeds developed in Rehovot or on the basis of that research: These include standard tomatoes as well as different kinds of cherry tomatoes and clustered varieties.

Is the faculty involved in genetic engineering, which is proven to significantly reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables?

"If Europe opens its gates to farm products developed by genetic engineering, Israeli farmers and seed companies will find that the scientists at the agriculture faculty are prepared to provide immediate answers. Everything is ready."

Seed money

Hundreds of experiments are being conducted at Hebrew Universitys agriculture faculty in Rehovot today, and some are expected to yield results that will lead to the development of vegetable and other seeds that will be sold around the world for many millions of dollars a year.

Israel is home to the worlds leading agriculture research stations, creative scientists and farmers, who are eager to study and apply new technology. The seed-production industry is based entirely on knowledge and does not require large fields or copious amounts of water. Instead, it needs good research institutions and creative researchers.

Today the latter are working, among other things, on the revival of garden garlic, which became endangered several generations back. This type of garlic is one of the most important spice crops in the world, but its sterility has severely reduced the possibilities of development and reproduction from seeds. A study conducted in Rehovot has managed to solve the riddle of this sterility and make garlic fertile once again.

A similar achievement to that of Prof. Rabinowitch and his team in the development of tomato varieties and their commercial exploitation has been reached by Dr. Yonatan Elkind and a group that developed pepper varieties raised in greenhouses and sold around the world.