Israeli ‘smell technology’ bans bugs from food, crops

The secret to keeping insects out of plants and packaged food may lie in odors generated by herbs and spices, two startups have found

Flies seen at sunset. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Flies seen at sunset. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

It’s not just the ick factor: Insects are responsible for a great deal of economic damage. According to the United Nations, between 5 and 10 percent of the world’s post-harvest produce was rendered unusable last year due to insect infestation. That’s on top of as much as 15% of crops lost due to destruction by insects out in the field.

Until now, the only way to cope with infestations has been through the application of pesticides, a dicey proposition at best because of potential environmental and health damage. Until now, there haven’t been too many alternatives, but a couple of Israeli companies may be able to change that — naturally.

“Plants and insects have been living together for eons,” says Yaniv Kitron, CEO of Israeli startup EdenShield. “Somehow plants have survived the onslaught of insects, and the way they did that was with odor.”

Plants, it turns out, contain compounds that emit odors that “deflect” bugs; the odors are unpleasant or unappealing to many pests, and since insects are attracted to plants via their sense of smell, neutralizing the odor of plants will take them off insects’ radar.

Two Israeli companies utilizing “smell technology” — EdenShield and Organis Solutions — are presenting their technology to investors in the US this week as part of an agritech roadshow sponsored by venture capital and incubator firm The Trendlines Group. “Our goal is to introduce our promising agritech companies to potential investors and strategic partners in the US,” said Steve Rhodes, chairman and CEO of Trendlines. “It is also about increasing awareness among US investors and corporations about the fantastic opportunities in Israel in the agritech space.”

Both EdenShield and Organis use odor technology to deflect insects. EdenShield bases its technology on an herb that grows in the Negev desert whose medicinal properties have been known to the Bedouin for generations. Kitron, an engineer who has a background in plant biology, was able to distill the plant’s anti-bug compounds and turn it into a commercial product for application in greenhouses. The compounds are especially potent against thrips and whiteflies, the bane of farmers everywhere, Kitron said.

The greenhouse market, worth $2 billion, is just the beginning; Kitron hopes to soon market his product to farmers for open field application, where the stakes are much higher. For greenhouse farmers, said Kitron, “one of our advantages is that we do not apply the product to plants and there are no pesticides involved, so we do not have to clear any regulatory hurdles. That makes our time to market much faster than for other solutions.”

Once crops are harvested and processed, they are packaged, shipped, and warehoused before they get to the consumer, and those processes, too, are fraught with bug-based danger, according to Lenore Shoham of Organis Solutions. “Food packaging and storage is a billion-dollar market looking for a solution,” she said. Organis’s solution is a spice that is a favorite in Indian and other cuisines, turmeric.

The anti-bug properties of turmeric have long been known, but Organis has been able, using proprietary technology, to distill those properties into a product that can be applied to packaging, ensuring that bugs stay away. Organis has solutions for cardboard and plastic packaging, and produces an aerosol for use in warehouses and storage areas, designed to repel bugs with the power of turmeric’s insect-deflecting properties.

The food industry is beginning to take notice, said Shoham. Organis has arrangements with food giants Strauss, Tata, and Kraft to test their aerosol and packaging products in the coming year. “In fact, Kraft approached us after seeing an article about us,” said Shoham. “There’s no other product like this.”

With EdenShield and Organis, farmers may soon be able to keep more of what they grow, manufacturers and distributors may have fewer pest problems to contend with — and more food could be available for the earth’s growing population.

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