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Keeping the bugs from ‘bugging’ your veggies

Posted By David Shamah On December 21, 2009 @ 12:00 am In | No Comments

When an epidemic hit Israel’s tomato industry, a netting expert came up with a solution to protect the crops from insect pests, inadvertently creating a new multi-million dollar industry.

 

When a virus carried by the whitefly almost destroyed Israel’s tomato crop, Meteor developed an innovative new anti-insect net to keep the bugs out.

Meet Avi Klayman. He’s the man who saved Israel’s tomato crop and in the process stumbled onto a multi-million dollar industry that is now creating a green revolution in agriculture. Thanks to his invention – an innovative anti-insect netting – far fewer bugs are making their way into the vegetables we eat, enabling us to enjoy fresh, wholesome produce that is nearly pesticide-free.

Vegetable greenhouse netting may not be as “sexy” a high-tech innovation as, say, the invention of instant messaging (also credited to Israel, via ICQ), but the nets created by Klayman’s company, Meteor Agricultural Nets – which are patented in Israel and around the world – are just as revolutionary.

It all began in 1988 when much of Israel’s tomato crop was lost to yellow curl virus, a destructive disease carried by whitefly that attacks the DNA of plants, causing them to shrivel up and die.

Whiteflies are extremely difficult to control and quickly build up resistance to pesticides. Farmers were spraying their crops three times a day – to no avail, it turned out – as the whiteflies infested almost the entire tomato crop, causing a yellow curl epidemic.

Desperate farmers began to examine alternatives, among them the possibility of covering crops to prevent infestation. Following consultations with scientists at Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization (also known as the Volcani Institute) Klayman developed a solution – a mesh called the Antivirus Net that blocks the whitefly’s physical access to plants, while allowing sunshine in and enabling air circulation.

Mesh nets stymie pests

The Antivirus net seems like a simple idea, but determining just the right balance – holes that are small enough to prevent insects from entering, but are big enough to ensure that the right amount of sunshine and air can get in – involved a great deal of research. Oddly, says Klayman, very little work had been done in the area before 1988, probably because farmers were still enamored of pesticides, which they had always used.

“When the first pesticides came out in the 1920s and 1930s, farmers had great success in keeping bugs out of their crops,” Klayman relates. “But as time went on, the bugs developed resistance to the standard pesticides, so more powerful ones were needed. By the late ’80s, it was clear that a different approach was needed.”

In the early 1990s, says Klayman, the most common agricultural pest in the world, the Tobacco (Silverleaf) Whitefly, was responsible for billions of dollars of damage to US agriculture. In 1991 alone the industry lost over a half billion dollars.

The Antivirus net took the farming community in Israel and the rest of the world by storm, and orders poured in from many countries.

To meet more specific needs, Meteor started to produce other, more advanced nets, such as the BioNet, for use on vegetables and flowers. In addition to physically blocking the bugs, including tiny ones like aphids and spider mites, the BioNet also limits their perceptions of their surroundings, playing tricks with filtered light that essentially leave the bugs blind.

“Even if a pest gets through a BioNet, it just sits there, immobilized by its inability to see,” says Klayman.
And Meteor’s latest invention – the SpiderNet – keeps out even the smallest pests, like thrips (small to minute sucking insects with narrow, feathery wings), using strong filament fibers designed like a spider web.

In use in dozens of countries

Nowadays, Meteor nets are used in dozens of countries around the world, including Latin America, Africa and even countries in the Middle East, such as Jordan and Egypt. “In some countries, farmers are aware of the advantages of nets, but in others, they still rely on pesticides,” says Klayman, adding that “farmers in countries with strong government agricultural supervision are likely to use nets.”

The company has sold some nets in the US he says, but most of the vegetables available there are grown in Mexico and Central America, (where farmers generally do use nets). However, Klayman points out, none of the other net manufacturers have the experience and quality – or the patents – that Meteor has.

Then there’s the Jewish angle. While nobody wants to eat insect-infected produce, observant Jews are bound by specific biblical strictures against ingesting them and many prefer not to take a chance.

As a result, a large industry has sprung up in Israel where rabbinical supervisors inspect produce – especially leafy vegetables, where there are many places for insects to hide – and if the vegetables are seen to be free of insects, grant them a certificate that identifies them as kosher. The vegetables are grown beneath nets throughout Israel, in what has become a multi-million dollar annual business.

That business only exists because of Meteor, Klayman asserts. “The truth is that vegetables that come to Israel’s markets today all have a very low level of insect infestation, but only some growers have rabbinical supervision.” Of course, insects can invade vegetables sold in stalls in open-air markets once the produce is displayed for sale, but when first picked, leafy vegetables grown on farms using Meteor nets are usually insect-free, Klayman maintains.

And perhaps there’s some symmetry in Klayman being the one to come up with a patent that helps to preserve a facet of Jewish heritage: “My father was in Auschwitz, and came to Israel after the war,” he says, revealing that it was his concentration-camp survivor father who started the company in 1953, when it manufactured window screens.

Today, with some 50 highly skilled workers, Meteor, based in Petah Tikva in central Israel, produces anti-insect nets for agriculture, enabling all of us to enjoy our vegetables without worrying about pesticides or bugs.

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