A herbal remedy for the ‘bug crisis’

Farmers nowadays are using more pesticides than ever. An innovation based on Negev herbs may be even more effective

A greenhouse growing organic peppers in Faran in the Arava desert (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)
A greenhouse growing organic peppers in Faran in the Arava desert (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)

Herbs are for more than just tea — they may be the next big thing in the fight against pests. Particularly one herb that grows in Israel’s Negev desert, whose medicinal properties have been known to the Bedouin for generations. Yaniv Kitron of Israel’s EdenShield has discovered that it works pretty well as a natural “pesticide,” too.

Not that there’s any spraying of bugs going on. Kitron’s idea is to take this herb — as well as others known to discourage insect infestation — and apply it to the nets in greenhouses. There are many natural substances that insects of different types are unable to tolerate; when they smell the aroma generated by these substances, they turn tail and fly away. Spraying the nets that surround the greenhouses where fruits, vegetables, and other produce are raised, will help keep the bugs away from the plants. Thus, farmers will lose less to infestation and will be able to take more goods to the market. To boot, Kitron’s system will be great for the consumers: The produce they buy will have significantly less pesticide sprayed on it.

Israel has long been a leader in innovative, and safe, methods to keep produce bug-free. One of the first companies in the world to produce netting designed to prevent insects from getting into a greenhouse was developed by a Petach Tikvah company called Meteor. The invention dates back to 1988, when most of Israel’s tomato crop was devastated by yellow curl virus — a destructive disease carried by whiteflies that attacks the DNA of plants, causing them to shrivel up and die. The whiteflies were bombarded with pesticide, but they were quickly building resistance. It was only the development of nets, which blocked the whitefly’s physical access to plants, while allowing sunshine and air circulation to penetrate, that has ensured that Israeli consumers can still get luscious tomatoes in their local market.

However, as humans became more ingenious, so did the bugs, said Kitron — or so it seems. “The insects we are protecting against today are smaller, and the netting is no longer enough to stop them,” he told The Times of Israel at a start-up conference sponsored by the Trendlines Group. “There has to be a minimum size for the openings in the net to allow air and sunshine to penetrate, in order to properly grow plants. Unfortunately, that minimum size is big enough to allow numerous pests to get into greenhouses.” And if and when they do, the only choice for a farmer is to spray with ever-stronger pesticides, as subsequent generations of bugs build up a resistance to the poison.

But with Kitron’s bug-chasing herbs, the insects will self-regulate themselves away from the neighborhood of protected plants. “The herbs that we use are endemic to the Israeli desert, and our team has discovered that the specific types of pests we are battling don’t like their odor. So, by turning the herb into an essence that can be sprayed on, or otherwise applied to, the nets, the pests don’t even come near, preferring to find plants that don’t feature a scent they cannot tolerate.” It’s even better than pesticide, Kitron said, because the bugs will not build up a resistance to the odor, as they would to bug spray. “Their dislike of these substances is hard-wired into their DNA, so they won’t even come close enough to try to ‘learn’ to like them. Instead, they’ll just fly off elsewhere.”

According to Kitron, different combinations of herbs can thwart different types of pests. “There are some pests that farmers don’t really care about, because they affect the leaves and not the fruit, for example. The farmer can tailor-make his mix of defenses, using our product, netting, and pesticides when necessary.” Kitron said that while his products are very effective — “We’ve done tests that have resulted in a 90%-plus reduction in the presence of pests we’ve targeted, including thrips and Tuta absoluta (“leaf miners”) — the bug problem today is so bad that no single solution is sufficient anymore to beat them.

Just why is the “bug crisis” today so severe? “It comes down to the intensive cultivation methods used by farmers,” continued Kitron. In the old days, farmers would cycle crops through their land, allow some plots to lie fallow for a season. That break would give the land a chance to “clear” itself of pests, so that the bugs would be starting from scratch when building a population at the next growing season. “But today, because of demand, there is almost no break in the cultivation cycle,” he added.

New, enhanced seeds and stronger pesticides let farmers produce more than ever, but because there is always something growing, there is always something for pests to eat. Instead of dying off when the first round of plants is harvested, they just attach themselves to the next round, all the while increasing their already substantial population. The only way to battle this, bemoaned Kitron, is to use ever-increasing amounts of pesticides, which is bad for the environment, the farmer, and the consumer. “That’s why we are positive that this idea is going to take off and be very successful,” he claimed, and, having worked in chemical engineering and herb extraction for nearly two decades, he is very familiar with the issues.

Kitron established EdenShield in early 2012. The company is a part of the Mofet incubator, part of the Trendlines Group in Misgav, which specializes in medical device and biotech/agritech companies. According to Kitron, farmers are spending over $3 billion a year to fight thrips, whiteflies, and Tuta absoluta in greenhouse crops, and the results are far from ideal. Instead, he seems sure, they will be very happy to give EdenShield a sniff — and a chance.

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