New solution to keep veggies fresh for a month, sans fridge

Hebrew University researchers showcase new technology at Israel’s top international agricultural exhibition

On the left, a pepper and lettuce leaf treated with the new solution after a week without refrigeration; on the right, untreated produce (Photo credit; Courtesy)
On the left, a pepper and lettuce leaf treated with the new solution after a week without refrigeration; on the right, untreated produce (Photo credit; Courtesy)

A new technique developed by Hebrew University researchers that extend the life of vegetables for weeks without refrigeration could help break the cycle of poverty among rural farmers in the developing world, with.

There are dozens of technologies that can help farmers grow healthier, hardier and better-tasting fruits and vegetables – many of them developed in Israel – but there are few technologies to extend the life of produce. While some fruits and vegetables can be kept in cold storage for months, others – like leafy vegetables – have to be brought to market within days, before they begin to wilt.

It’s a problem for farmers all over the world, especially in the developing world. Farmers who have no access to refrigeration – because of a lack of electricity, inability to afford equipment, infrastructure problems, or other reasons – are basically at the mercy of local wholesalers who offer them far less than their produce is worth.

Instead of taking their produce to the cities, where it can fetch the market price, farmers in rural India and Africa have to sell at below market prices locally, because by the time they get to the city, their produce will have gone bad. Selling their produce for subsistence wages, farmers get barely enough to live on and replant for the next season – and prolonging the cycle of poverty.

Dr. Rivka Elbaum (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Rivka Elbaum (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The new technology was invented by Dr. Rivka Elbaum, from the Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences, Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture at the Hebrew University. It entails dipping the cut leaves into the solution, which is a secret, and has been patented in the United States and Israel.

In a number of experiments, the solution was shown to delay senescence and chlorophyll loss in lettuce leaves as well as in Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard. The system will also work with other leafy vegetables, such as celery, spinach, cabbage, kale, parsley, basil, cauliflower, and broccoli, the university said.

The technology was on display Tuesday at Agritech 2015, a major agricultural technology event in Tel Aviv that drew some 10,000 visitors from Israel and abroad, including agricultural ministers.

“The solution is still under development, but we’re almost finished with it,” said a spokesperson for Yissum, the tech transfer company of Hebrew University, which is commercializing the invention.

“We’ve been speaking to some large organizations, such as food wholesalers, who are very interested in working with us. We’re still working on the form of delivery for the solution – possibly as a mist spray in the produce section of the supermarket, with the sprayers using our solution instead of water. One application is enough to keep lettuce leaves fresh for a month, but it’s not clear that further applications will preserve leaves for a longer period.”

That is one of the questions the research team is trying to answer now, the spokesperson said.

Since it was formed in 1964, Yissum has established some companies based on research done by Hebrew U scientists, including road safety innovator Mobileye – which recently raised $400 million for its collision protection technology that alerts drivers when they are getting too close to the car in front of them.

Altogether, products based on Hebrew University technologies that have been commercialized by Yissum generate $2 billion in annual sales. Yissum has registered over 8,100 patents covering 2,300 inventions, and has licensed out 700 technologies. Yissum-sourced start-ups have partnered with or been acquired by companies such as Syngenta, Monsanto, Roche, Novartis, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Intel, Teva and many others.

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