Ever since the early nineteenth century, Israel has faced an uphill struggle to grow its food. Early settlers faced sweltering heat, arid soil and negligible rainfall– all of which served to make cultivating crops a major challenge.
“The first people that came to Israel came to a very barren land,” explains Rat Natanzon, head of tech and innovation at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “They had to find a way to figure out how to create agriculture without water, and without fertile soil.” And so, from necessity, “the idea of improving agriculture via innovation was embedded right from the beginning.”
And this idea of innovating to survive has spurred some game-changing agricultural advancements in the last 100 years.
Famously, in 1959, Polish-Israeli engineer Simcha Blass and his son Yeshayahu created the first drip irrigation system, a mechanism that distributes water and nutrients evenly and slowly throughout a crop, helping to cut down on water use by as much as 70%. By the 1960s the invention had caught on across the world, changing the efficacy and profitability of agriculture immeasurably.
In the last sixty years too, modern Israeli innovators and inventors - fuelled by growing concerns around sustainability – have broadened their attentions from agricultural technologies in the field, to food tech designed for the supply chain. From the creation of next-generation plant-based proteins, to sugar alternatives crafted using artificial intelligence, to cultivated meat, the country of nine million people is full of companies working on cutting-edge innovation.
“The lessons learned from existing with limited natural resources have fostered innovative solutions for ‘growing more with less’ long before it became a mantra for global sustainability efforts,” said John Friedman, director at AgFunder Asia & GROW Accelerator. As a result, “when you think of global centres for innovation in the agri and food tech space, few places stand out like Israel.”
Some of the prominent startups include Future Meat Technologies, which said in February it had reduced the production cost of a cultured chicken breast to $7.50. Taranis is a precision agriculture startup that allows farmers to monitor fields using high-resolution aerial imagery and analysis.
It isn’t only in food and agriculture in which Israel punches above its weight on technologies, of course. Support for innovation of all kinds has been a priority of the government for more than a decade, points out Natanzon. “The rise in awareness of the importance of innovation came after the 2008 crash when banks collapsed and there was an understanding that countries had to find a new source of income,” he said. “The main growth engine is through innovation.”
As a result, no less than 9.2% of the population is now employed in some form of hi-tech industry, spanning telecoms, software and satellites. Despite its size, Israel accounts for an estimated 5-10% of the global cybersecurity market. About 46% of all Israeli exports – around $45.8bn – are in some form of hi-tech.
Though not yet as established as these industries, food and agri tech are among Israel’s fastest growing sectors of innovation. This is due in large part to the growing global awareness of the need to find alternatives to current methods of production and farming. The country is now home to more than 300 food tech start-ups – 124 of which were established in the last year alone. Since 2013, investment in the sector has nearly tripled to $135m, with hardly a month going by without another multi-million-dollar funding round.
It is the country’s “whole-of-nation approach” to innovation, adds Friedman, in which public policy is aligned with private partnerships, that have helped solidify its reputation as a hub for food and agri tech.
In December 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first to tuck into the world’s first cultivated steak. Created by Tel Aviv-based start-up Aleph Farms, the steak had been painstakingly grown from bovine cells, taking shape around a molecular scaffold, without the need for a single animal to be slaughtered. “It’s delicious, and guilt-free, I can’t taste the difference,” smiled Netanyahu as he took a bite.
It was fitting that Netanyahu was there. The breakthrough by Aleph Farms was in no small part thanks to the collaborative efforts between academia, the private food industry, and public initiatives that shape innovation in Israel. The company had first been nurtured as part of the government-created food tech incubator scheme “The Kitchen Hub,” an initiative backed by both funds from major private food manufacturer the Strauss Group, and top scientists from Israeli’s Institute of Technology.
“Aleph Farms is a great example of a fruitful collaboration between a government agency, the industry, and the academy – all working together to secure a leading position in this key industry,” said Yoav Reisler, a representative for the company. “Over the past several years, Israeli companies like Aleph Farms have partnered with major food corporations like the Strauss Group and worked closely with the tight and supportive innovative community of food-tech.”
Other success stories borne from “The Kitchen” scheme include cultured yoghurt start-up YoFix, which secured $2.5m to expand its operations in 2020. Better Juice, the company behind a technology to naturally remove sugars from juice, signed a global agreement with international processor GEA Group in January. Flying Spark, a protein powder made from fruit fly larvae, secured multiple investments, including from leading Thai seafood producer Thai Union.
Given the government and institutional support, and range of services to early-stage ventures, Israel’s food tech scene is fast catching up with the likes of Silicon Valley and the Netherlands in terms of prestige and output,” said Friedman of AgFunder.
The way in which Israel has designed a collaborative ecosystem of support for start-ups has “inspired countries like Singapore to emulate when solving their own national food resilience needs,” he said. “This bodes well for the innovation and transformation of the Southeast Asia food system so desperately required if we are to match the rising demands of population growth and climate change facing us over the next decades.”
The world will need investments in innovation and cutting-edge tech to overcome the major challenges it faces on food and agriculture. And where better to look for inspiration than a country that has made innovation into a national brand.