One fine morning, Prof. Yedidya Gafni, an expert in plant genetics, got a phone call that left him reeling. On the line was a woman who said she was a journalist with a major global media network. She wanted Gafni to tell her about the genetic neutering of poppy plants in the Volcani Institute's department of genetic research into vegetable crops, which he heads. Taken aback by the question, Gafni asked the woman to elaborate. She explained that she had reliable information to the effect that Israel was using genetic engineering methods to neutralize the ability of the poppy plant to produce morphine. The Israeli Air Force, the caller continued, would then scatter the genetically engineered seeds over Lebanon, resulting in huge crops of poppies lacking the ability to create opium. Hezbollah would thereby lose a major source of income. Moreover, the opium-free plants from Lebanon would be sold around the world and bewilder the drug trafficking organizations, which would react to the fraud by their own means.
Gafni was apparently not completely unfamiliar with this story, though he will not admit it fully. However, he says, the journalist was wrong about the perpetrators of this science fiction warfare. With journalistic haste, before anyone else got onto the story, she had contacted the natural suspect: the director of a genetic engineering department.
"The people responsible for this stratagem, if it actually happened, did not understand two major things," Gafni says. "Genetic engineering requires large resources and long-term scientific patience. Both conditions apparently ran out very quickly: both the money and the patience." Gafni says he doesn't know who was behind the scheme, but it certainly was not Israel.
The Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research, at Beit Dagan near Rishon Letzion, is part of the Agricultural Research Organization, the research arm of the Ministry of Agriculture. I went to see Prof. Gafni there after hearing of an experience of a friend who makes occasional trips to Ethiopia to visit his son, who runs a flourishing agricultural business there. My friend had been witness to a touching scene: A very long line of down-and-out local farmers waiting outside a seed store, holding tightly to paper or transparent plastic bags in which they kept their money. The son told his father that last season, these hardscrabble farmers had sown crossbred seeds that were protected against pests, and their yield had tripled. He added that in his view, the seeds originated in Israel. The money in the bags was all they had, he told his father - so greatly were they impressed by the size of the harvest.
"I don't know what they planted or whether they were our seeds," Gafni says. "But if each farmer bought only 10 grams of tomato seeds to plant, he paid $300 - a fortune for an Ethiopian farmer. A kilogram of our tomato seeds of a certain type costs $30,000."
Did I hear right - $30,000? Gafni confirmed the figure. I remembered my father, who carried the persecuted Jew gene and hid a heavy bag of gold coins in the house in case of sudden trouble or disaster in the form of expulsion from his country. Perhaps today he would invest in a few kilos of tomato seeds instead of gold coins.
The Volcani Institute will soon be celebrating its 90th anniversary. The founder, Yitzhak Elazari Volcani, is buried in Moshav Nahalal, the country's first cooperative agricultural settlement, suggesting the historic esteem in which Israel holds his work. However, his name, Volcani, has confused generations of Israelis, a matter that does not amuse the center's researchers. "It's irritating," Gafni says gruffly, "that in every generation there are still Israelis who think the institute studies volcanoes and volcanic soil."
Before agreeing to talk about the wonders of crossbreeding and genetic engineering - which he brought to Israel - and the marvels of extending the shelf life of agricultural produce, be it in a ship's hold or a supermarket, Gafni insisted on "starting at the right place. Ask me what the most important area of research is here," he commanded with a smile.
"Others would have said high tech. But we can get along without high tech, we can get along without weapons industries, but we can't get along without eating and without protecting against the rotting of grains, fruits and vegetables, from which all of us, including the animals, live. That is the hard truth, even if it's not as sexy as high tech. Farmland is diminishing, the amount of available water is decreasing, but people are living longer and have to be fed. Without agricultural research we will not survive as a country - it's as simple as that. Without the intensive research done in our agriculture in the past few decades, our situation would resemble that of the Third World - like in Ethiopia, like in hungry Africa.
"Israelis take the abundance in the supermarkets for granted, along with the variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. But that abundance is occurring in the face of much-reduced farmland and depleted water sources. We learned and taught others how to get more from a dunam [a quarter of an acre] of land and we developed techniques of crossbreeding and genetic engineering to protect plants from dozens of pests. Along the way, we imparted to Israeli farmers the ability to compete with their counterparts around the world, and to win.
"The Israeli farmer - and I say this responsibly - is educated, lives well and makes money. He is not in farming because of the socialist ideology of the founding generation. Forget that. The contemporary farmer earns good money from farming, provided he learns how to apply the achievements of research. But all that requires the support of the state, which is not impressed by our world-scale research accomplishments. Some people even suggested privatizing the Volcani Institute, but that danger has passed, for the time being.
"Listen to an irritating story. We have scored fine achievements when it comes to research into potatoes. We heightened their resistance to pests and prolonged their shelf life. We can now make the potato's size, shape and skin color as the consumer wishes. We developed a special type of potato for French fries. We are working on a type for the production of laundry detergent. By means of genetic engineering, enzymes are injected into potatoes and detergent can be extracted from them. At present, the enzymes are produced by fermenting fungi in huge vats. That is an expensive process. So we went to Bruno [Landsberg], the founder and owner of Sano, which manufactures detergents, a dear Zionist who did not move his factories to Jordan or other cheaper places. We put to him the possibility of manufacturing laundry detergent cheaply, from genetically engineered potatoes.
"We came to him without PowerPoint or other advertising gimmicks, like naive professors - albeit, with world reputations, if you'll allow me - but completely lacking in marketing sophistication. He was impressed, but asked us to take the project to a more economically coherent level. We did not completely convince him. Naive scientific enthusiasm did not translate into selling ability. He wanted a business plan. We are short of researchers, short of marketing people. We are working so that Israeli farmers will be able to compete successfully with world agriculture, working so that Third World agriculture will be able to feed millions of hungry people. Don't sing me the national anthem. In the past we never thought about profits and copyrights."
How are you budgeted?
Gafni laughs. "Here's the absurd thing. The Finance Ministry budgets us according to the number of people in the country who are engaged in agriculture. But the decreasing number of people who are engaged in agriculture stems from the achievements of researchers who have made it possible to utilize every dunam more efficiently. The same piece of land now yields three to five times what it did in the past. Science and plant hybrids have eradicated historic pests, so that much more now remains on the ground. We have learned how to make do with less water, how to till the land more efficiently. The result: fewer working hands. That's an achievement, but we are being punished for it."
At this point he left the room and returned a moment later with a small plastic box that held a plant.
"What do you see?"
A plant in a plastic box.
"Right. This plant produces high quality medical insulin by connecting between a human cell and its genetic capability to create insulin, and the plant cell. This is genetic engineering. When the plant matures it will produce high-quality insulin. The quality has been tested. You are probably thinking: The pharmaceutical companies will leap at the achievement and make billions. But no. It turns out that the process of making insulin from bacteria is at a standstill. We did not spare much, so we didn't become millionaires, but the possibility of connecting humans with plants, this phenomenal discovery, will open a new world."
People at the Volcani Institute are thinking in far more purposeful terms than in the past. They are working on vitamin-enriched chewing gum that will be sold in kiosks. Gum that tastes like steak. Children will at last consume vitamins and the teacher won't tell them to stop chewing their cud.
A study underway in the food sciences department is examining the possibility that certain herbs used in popular medicine for a variety of healing purposes contain material that could prevent, treat or slow the development of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. No human experiments have been conducted yet, but laboratory tests have produced encouraging results.
Scientists at Volcani are also trying to develop tomatoes that will include, in one or two units, all the lycopene (an antioxidant) a person needs per day.
In the meantime, I understand the tomato is your moneymaker, that companies are raking in millions with the seeds you crossbred here. Aren't you afraid that others will steal the patents?
"Nowadays patents are no longer stolen, with the exception of one great power that does not respect copyrights, and don't tell me its name - I will deny it. These days we can create tomatoes at the client's request. The Americans, for example, want a large round tomato whose slices will fit the circumference of a hamburger bun. The Italians, who have been in love with tomatoes for 400 years, have dozens of taste, size and color demands, according to the caprices of their various kitchens."
I've heard about the success of crossbreeding tomatoes for industrial use.
"That process is already working. Shipping tomatoes for industrial needs is very expensive. Tomatoes consist of 80 percent water. We understood that if a way could be found to leave tomatoes on the bush without the water, millions would be saved in transportation costs. We asked ourselves why raisins remain on the vine without rotting like other fruits, and we found microscopic slits in grapes that enable them to let out water gradually without rotting, in contrast to other fruits. We looked for and found a tomato that has these properties and crossbred it with types that are in demand for industry. We can now transport shriveled tomatoes, which are void of water. That's a saving of millions in transportation to ketchup producers and manufacturers of tomato-based sauces."
During the interview, Gafni introduces me to Kobi Levin, a former member of Kibbutz Beit Hashita in the Jezreel Valley, who immigrated to Brazil, did well in business and became an enthusiastic partner of the Volcani Institute's initiative to create diesel fuel from the seeds of castor oil plants. Quite recently, bags containing the seeds were discovered in his luggage at Ben-Gurion Airport, and he was detained by customs. He was suspected of smuggling drugs from Brazil and had to explain biodiesel to the customs officer.
"In another 50 years the world's fuel will run out," Gafni says. "We need an alternative. The Americans are already making fuel from corn, the Germans from soybeans. But the cars that run on those fuels cost a fortune, and humanitarian organizations are accusing the Germans and the Americans not only of producing fuel for the rich but also of destroying vast quantities of food earmarked for simple folk.
"We looked for a plant not used to feed humans, and we found the castor oil plant. Brazil has huge tracts of unused land, plenty of water and cheap labor. That's how we got to Kobi Levin, who immediately took to the idea. The quality of their oil and its durability in the face of pests is unbeatable. This might be our financial salvation. By the way, Kobi is subsidized by the Brazilian government. They understand that biodiesel will leave working hands in the countryside, that people in the rural areas will work and eat where they are instead of migrating by the millions to the big cities and dying in the favelas, the horrific shantytowns that have sprung up around the cities."
By the way, as a world authority on plant genetics, could you explain to me why our watermelons were so terrible this summer?
"I can, of course, but that lies in the realm of fruit and vegetable storage, and I want to tell you that despite the dreary name, it is no less fascinating than genetics."
So it was that I arrived in Prof. Elazar Fallik's Department of Postharvest and Food Sciences. The institute and its people, the surrounding fields and the aroma of the fruit in the refrigeration rooms reminded me of long-gone days in the pioneer youth movements: picking cotton at Beit Hashita, harvesting plums at Kibbutz Alonim - ah, youth!
Prof. Fallik makes the rounds of farmers in Israel like a rural veterinarian in a British television series. "Believe it or not, they have my mobile phone number, and I get to them." He treats the need to prolong shelf life like a contest in which he is grappling with the laws of nature.
"That's the name of the game," Prof. Fallik says. "The ability to prolong the shelf life of fruits and vegetables after they have been harvested and make possible maritime shipping to Europe or more distant destinations is what determines our ability to compete with advanced agriculture around the world. Planes are no longer in the picture, partly due to ecological considerations. They are polluters. Anyone who doesn't think about cheap transport by sea can forget about competing. Storage starts from the moment of harvesting, via transport to the sorting process, which uses sophisticated computerization; then the journey to the port, the days of storage at sea, the time in the supermarket, until the refrigerator at home. It is a very long process."
You mentioned sorting by computer, whereas I thought Thai workers do it by hand.
"Not anymore. We spill the produce onto the conveyor belt and a computer camera observes it from above, dividing everything into different categories of size, color, shape, flaws. Each item is transferred to its track. The computer rejects are sold to us in Israel. There is no reason to grow fruits and vegetables at a high level of taste and aroma, and invest in exotic crossbreeding, if the produce starts to rot on the way and does not reach the consumer in fresh, unflawed and alluring condition.
"The competition for the consumer is very tough," he continues. "Let me give you an example. Basil, a popular herb, is very sensitive to cold. It cannot be stored at a temperature of under 12 degrees Celsius. However, we discovered that if you pick it in the afternoon, at 4 o'clock, the extra bit of life under the sun allows maritime storage at two degrees lower. It may sound like nothing, but it increases the duration of ship storage by a few days.
"Big deal, the cynic will chuckle, it's just the afternoon instead of the morning, but it took a great deal of research and hypothesizing to arrive at that supposedly banal discovery. The result was that basil, its life prolonged by refrigeration, became a global competitor.
"If sweet pepper isn't sliced correctly, its life is shortened. Cooling will not help prolong it. Our farmers learned to obey these instructions. The shelf life of fruits and vegetables is determined by the way they are harvested, the time of day of the harvest, their color when they are picked and the refrigeration conditions.
"Sweet pepper," he continues, "is picked only after it has 85 percent red coloring. All the sweet peppers start off green. If you pick it at 50 percent of the color, it will not develop the red color in demand in Europe. Pepper plants with sharp points, a symbol of freshness, are picked at 11:30, taken quickly to the packing house and washed in hot water for 15 seconds - the water disinfects it and the brushes eradicate fomenters of disease. In this way they will last three weeks at sea. Oranges can be stored for a few months, apples for a year, potatoes eight months, strawberries two weeks. Air transport is not needed."
With the enthusiasm of a guide taking a supplicant into the holy of holies, Fallik takes me two floors down into experimental refrigeration rooms. Like a maintenance man, the professor knows where the keys are, opens and shuts doors and turns switches with gasps of amazement. The cold is not terrible.
"If you notice," he says, "each cell has different packages. We learned how to prolong a product's life by means of using different packaging materials. Ripening at sea is delayed in part by the effect of packaging types - it's a whole science. The farmer knows which type of package to use for each product. We make sure he doesn't forget." He points to colorful posters on the walls showing peppers and other fruits, each the right color for the instant of picking.
"You match the color of the fruit in the poster with the color of the fruit on the plant. The colors have to match exactly. A slight change in the color of the pepper and it will ripen too fast. Two days, and you have lost a cargo of millions."
Prof. Fallik saves the bizarre for last. Opening a door, he asks me what I see inside the room. Ten individual tables, a chair next to each one, each table separated by a divider. "This is our tasting and sniffing room," Prof. Fallik declares with a proud smile. "At each stage, from the moment of picking to the end of the refrigeration process, we seek opinions about the taste and smell of the fruits. We use volunteers [all from the institute]. We train them. By means of this smelling and tasting, we have reached correct standards of flavor and aroma. We serve them slices of the fruits, and they - five men and five women - indicate on a chart what they smelled and tasted.
"Smell and flavor have different charts," he adds. "There are categories for bland taste, acidic, sweet, sour, over-aromatic. We strive for familiar universal flavors, based on an average of the responses. There was one woman who deviated from every average of familiar taste and smell. It turned out that she was pregnant. The jokers suggested a new taste category, for pregnant women."
Maybe you can solve for me the mystery of the failure of our watermelons this summer? It was hard to find a sweet watermelon; the color was excellent but there was no sweetness.
"We recommend picking watermelons in a state of 11 percent sweetness. There is a process for testing sweetness, but this year the farmers were afraid of the heat, and the watermelons were picked in the wrong state of ripeness."
Prof. Fallik told me a story to sweeten the watermelon failure. "Our tasters discovered that the taste of the melons was disappointing. We looked into the matter and found that we had covered them too thickly with a layer of beeswax. The wax creates an artificial sheen that tempts customers, safeguards the water in the fruit and extends the shelf life. We corrected the wax layer and the taste returned."
And I remembered my father on the balcony, plunging a knife passionately into a sweet watermelon, slicing bread and salty hard cheese and smacking his lips. Dad's watermelons were bought in the roadside booth next to our house, and the flavor was checked meticulously by "knife blade" technology.
Dr. Jacob Perzelan, an engineer, is in charge of carrying out scientific projects at the Volcani Institute. He is also part of a 15-member team that is occasionally summoned to sniff and taste for research purposes, such as testing a new type of fruit to see if it lives up to expectations. There are five men and five women in the tasting room, separated by dividers, so that the expressions on their faces and their general reaction to the product, by means of answering the questions on a form, will not influence the others.
Dr. Perzelan does this work voluntarily, drawn by the fun of the group encounter and on behalf of the institute. He underwent prior training, tasting various fruits and smelling solutions whose taste is secret, in order to ensure that his findings do not deviate from a reasonable norm.
There are many reasons for the tasting tests. Sometimes a precise simulation is used to examine the taste of products that have undergone refrigeration during seaborne transport, to ensure that the journey does not affect the product's taste and other desirable qualities. Or the effect of a new packaging material on the product might be tested.
The institute does not want tasters with special traits, but ordinary people. The men and women in the tasting room come from different ethnic communities and represent a cross section of Israeli society. In some cases the effect of the conservation process is also examined. Melons are usually coated with beeswax to preserve their water. The tasting test involves cutting slices from the melon, with the tasters noting the effect of the wax on the taste and smell of the fruit - perhaps the wax affected the fruit's breathing and harmed its taste. If the wax affects the breathing, fermentation ensues and the melon tastes like wine.