As demand for food rises, Israel doubles up on agritech

Israel’s capabilities in agricultural technology will help ensure that the world’s growing population has enough to eat, a top agribusiness executive says

Rurik Halaby (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Rurik Halaby (Photo credit: Courtesy)

There are more mouths to feed than ever but the number is still growing, according to Rurik Halaby, the CEO of New York-based AgriCapital, one of the largest mergers and acquisition firms working in the agritech space. “The demand for food will double by 2050. Fifty years ago, one hectare of land fed one person for a year. By 2050, we will have to increase that fivefold, so that a hectare feeds five people.”

A tall order, to be sure, but an order that Halaby believes Israeli agriculture technology can fill. AgriCapital, established by Halaby 30 years ago, is not an investment bank per se — Halaby prefers the term “advisers” to describe what AgriCapital does — but it does provide investment-bank type services, including helping companies secure financing, putting together merger and acquisition deals, and advising companies on industry issues and direction. As such, he has a wide-ranging — and long-tailed — view on what it takes to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

There are three main trends affecting agritech, and Israel is an important player in all three, Halaby told The Times of Israel during the Go4Europe conference in Tel Aviv last week. “There are more mouths to feed, but at the same time people are getting wealthier and want higher quality food” — meaning that they are no longer satisfied with grains as the mainstay of their diets, but are demanding meat and other proteins. “Agribusiness today is also very globalized,” Halaby said. “Almost no countries grow for their needs,” producing food chiefly to feed their own citizens. Instead, they grow for the market. “Each country now specializes its production, selling its produce on the world market and buying what it needs. Things are much more interconnected now.”

And, of course, there is the growth in agricultural technology — “growing food on less arable land, dealing with a lack of water, ensuring production in changing weather patterns, etc.,” said Halaby. “Today the production of food depends a great deal on technology.”

Technology is the key to ensuring that there is enough food for everyone, and that it is of sufficient quality — and Israel’s strong agriculture, water, and environmental technologies has made it easier to coax food out of the ground, said Halaby. “Research into this is going on around the world, and there are many innovations that are being developed in the US, Europe, and other places. But I am very impressed with agritech in Israel, and as a result AgriCapital has partnered with investment firm Cukierman and Co. to develop services for Israeli agritech companies.” Considering that AgriCapital has been involved in huge deals for some of the biggest agribusiness companies in the world — like Monsanto, Novartis, NutriScience, and many others — that’s quite a compliment.

A good example of that technology, said Dani Meiri, who chaired this years AgriTech 2012 show, where some 30,000 people from Israel and abroad saw the latest in Israeli agricultural technology, is Israel’s milk-production prowess. “Israeli cows are the world’s most productive, with cows able to yield up to 12,000 liters of milk annually,” said Meiri. “Farmers come from all over the world to learn how we do it, and we export that technology as well.”

It’s that technology, Halaby believes, that will not only save the world, but produce better and healthier food for everyone. “The organic food movement is a sham,” he said. “They are monopolizing productive land that we need to feed the world’s population, and are using it to produce boutique products. With agritech, that land can be a lot more productive. In the agritech business, we say ‘less is more’ – we have to learn how to produce more on the limited land we have, and use technology to be able to grow food on land with limited arability.”

Israel is a good place to look for that technology. “Gram for gram, Israel is as productive as any nation, and considering the limitations it must work within,” said Halaby. “It is impressive and amazing.”

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