2018-19 Manna Food Security Fellows

The Manna Center Program for Food Safety & Security is pleased to announce its 2018-19 Food Security Fellows for research related to issues of Food Safety and Security. We wish you the best of luck with producing important new knowledge in the field!

Nevo Garfunkel

developing a sonar sensor for date cropt assessment

Ever since the 50th, Israel is a big player among suppliers of dates to the world. Even though it produce a small amount of the world's dates market Israel holds a big share of it, and that is mostly because of Israel export mainly the Majoul date which is the most expensive and have the highest quality of all.

Israel has approximately 700,000 date trees that are mostly in the Arava region, the Jordan valley, and at Emek Hamayanot. At those regions the date fields are a big part of the regional economy.

One of the hardest challenges that date fields are handling with is the dilution meaning leave only the right amount of fruits on the tree so each one will be the finest. This particular job requires a lot of men power which at Israel is a very expensive resource.

I am a part of a group that aims to make that job fully autonomies by a Agryrobote that works without human help. My research is focusing at the assessment and orientation of that machine. I am aiming to develop a sensor that is able to make a good assessment of how many fruits are on the palm so the robot would know how much to cat off. In addition another task of that sensor is to count how many palms there are in the tree and where they are. Those tasks are essential for the robot to be ready and able to do his work. By making that robot ready to go and work on the field the farmers could decrease significantly their cost at a yearly cycle.


Benjamin Neumark

Combating Food Terrorism with the Open Probe Fast GC-MS with Cold EI.

Open Probe Fast GC-MS was developed for the provision of real time analysis without sample preparation, with separation, library identification and with the low cost MS of standard GC-MS. Accordingly, Open Probe Fast GC-MS serves as a viable alternative to popular ambient desorption ionization techniques such as DART, DESI and ASAP. It is based on a heated probe oven that is mounted on a low thermal mass fast GC which is open to room air with helium purge flow protection to prevent air penetration. Open Probe fast GC-MS operation is simple: touch the sample with a sample holder, insert it into the Open Probe and start running GC-MS analysis with 30 s separation and 50 s for the start of next analysis. Common pesticides are easily available for farmers at tons amounts in fields, and even at supermarkets such as in various cockroach killers. While these toxic pesticides are intended for use against different kinds of pests, one can conceive their use to harm people and induce terror which we name "Food Terrorism". We explored the use the Open Probe Fast GC-MS with Cold EI for the analysis of selected scenarios of Food Terrorism such as cockroach killer pesticides on Tomatoes and various organo phosphorous pesticides in milk and on lettuce, carrots and grapes. We also analyzed labile carbamate pesticides such as aldicrb and carbaril on carrot. Matrix interference was relatively small and we could measure and monitor the pesticide lifetime on the food items.

The operation of Open Probe fast GC-MS was also demonstrated in the analysis of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Cannabis flower, trace TNT on glass surface, Vitamin E in canola oil, poly-brominated flame retardants in plastics, alprazolam in Xanax drug pill, a range of drug pills and free fatty acids and cholesterol in raw human blood.


Meiron Zollmann

Towards Offshore Macroalgae Based Starch and Protein Production: modeling and experimental approach for supplying critical nutrients

The world’s population is expected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, boosting agricultural demand by about 50 percent compared to 2013 (FAO, 2017). An alternative potential source of starch, protein and food additives, are macroalgae which could be cultivated in the ocean, utilizing wide offshore areas for food production. This resource is resilient to fresh water scarcity in dry areas and seasons and to land degradation and can increase food security.

The local Ulva and Gracilaria macroalgae species have high growth rates and varying protein and starch contents. In many ocean regions, including the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the productivity of macroalgae cultivation is limited by nitrogen availability and depends on external nitrogen supply, similarly to the dependence of terrestrial agriculture on fertilization.

Terrestrial agriculture has been recently transformed by precision agriculture (PA), improving productivity, fertilization efficiency and sustainability by implementing fertilization models accompanied by online sensors. These models enable to plan when and how much to fertilize for maximal yields and fertilization efficiency. The adjustment of PA techniques to macroalgae could offer smart and efficient offshore fertilization solutions, enabling to increase yields and control chemical composition.

My study addresses the need to develop macroalgae fertilization models by studying the rate at which macroalgae accumulate nitrogen, grow and produce proteins and starch in time varying nitrogen mass flow rates in controlled bioreactor and real sea conditions. The successful completion of this study is expected to help plan production, thus promoting offshore macroalgae cultivation as an alternative, resilient, food resource.


Reem Abu Rass

Interactions of Tilapia Lake Virus (TiLV) proteins with viral and cellular factors

Tilapia are important farmed fish, serving as a global primary protein source, especially in the developing world. Tilapia are also important for keeping the natural balance of ecosystems. Since 2009, massive losses of tilapia were identified in Israel. The Bacharach lab and co-workers identified the etiological agent for this disease as a novel virus, named ‘tilapia lake virus’ (TiLV). Since then, TiLV has been identified in many outbreaks around the world, risking the global tilapia industry, to a level that warrant a special alert by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). TiLV is an enveloped, negative-sense RNA virus, containing 10 genomic segments, each segment encodes one protein. Nine of the segments share no homology to any other known sequence, while one of the segments shares only weak homology to the polymerase subunit (PB1) of the influenza C virus (an orthomyxovirus). Thus, we have no prior information regarding nine of TiLV proteins.

My research goals include investigation of TiLV pathogenicity and the identification of cellular factors that support its replication. The identification of such factors is crucial for the development of efficient means to control the spread of this pathogen and to, hopefully, assist global tilapia aquaculture.   


Ori Frid

Effect of Marine protected areas (MPAs) on fish and fisheries under climate change and biological invasions

Marine ecosystems are experiencing accelerating fish population declines caused by unsustainable fishing, with negative consequences to food security worldwide. In the Mediterranean Sea, in addition to overfishing, marine communities are heavily affected by the invasion of non-indigenous species, which alter the catch of commercial fish.  An additional stressor to fish populations is climate-change related increases in sea temperatures, already causing distribution shifts and population declines.  Facing these multiple stressors, there is an urgent need to establish measures that will guarantee sustainable fisheries catch needed for a growing human population.

Marine protected areas (MPA) have been shown to significantly increase fish population density and biomass. As protected stocks build up, reserves are predicted to supply local fisheries through density-dependent spillover of juveniles and adults into fishing grounds. But though MPA’s are well known for tempering threats of overfishing, today managers must also address climate-change and invasion impacts that can adversely affect marine environments.  

My research goals are to investigate the role of MPA’s on increasing sustainable fishing across the Mediterranean Sea. Specifically, I will examine whether MPA’s provide a buffer to the spread of invasive species and modify climate related shifts in species distribution. The results will be used to understand future consequences of climate-change and invasive on fish biomass and diversity and hence future fisheries production. This study will thus provide new information about the role of MPA’s in rebuilding fish stocks and will help managers protect marine biodiversity and associated ecosystem services to ensure long-term human food security.


Leah Oren

Genetic dissection of drought resistance from wild emmer wheat using introgression lines

Global climate changes have profound effects on environment, agriculture and economics. Increasing aridity in the Middle East region is raising the requirement for crops that are adapted to water limited environment. Wheat is a main source of food, thus developing new varieties with genetic resistance for drought is essential. Wild emmer wheat was proved as a rich genetic source for traits that were lost during domestication, such as drought resistance.

We developed introgression line (IL) population, genotyped it and identified the wild chromosomal segments of ‘Zavitan’ accession in the background of durum wheat variety, ‘Svevo’. We tested 41 ILs and the parental line Svevo under field conditions in a rain-proof greenhouse. A split-plot factorial block was designed with five replicates, each block composed of wet treatment and dry treatment. We found significant correlations between particular ILs and yield performance, and based on the results, we selected few ILs with distinct traits. For example, line 21-1 was selected after mean comparison between this line and Svevo showed significant higher thousand kernel weight of this line in both treatments. Additional experiments will be implemented to further characterize these genotypes.

The new genomic resources, advanced genetic material and the availability of high-resolution genetic maps are expected to accelerate the identification of the genetic factors controlling drought resistance.  Such factors, originating from wild wheat gene pool, can be used in wheat breeding programs and help to improve our food security.   


Iddo Weiner

Towards microalgae-based technologies; harnessing computational modeling to engineer gene expression

Various species of microalgae have recently emerged as promising host-organisms for biotechnology industries due to their unique properties, including efficient sunlight conversion into organic compounds and the ability to grow in extreme conditions. Thus, microalgae can be cultivated in saline water tanks located on arid lands. However, the current inability to obtain high levels of heterologous gene expression in microalgae is hindering the development of this entire field. To tackle this problem, we combine computational modeling with experimental procedures in pursuit of developing new gene expression technologies.

We have discovered key elements of algal gene expression and implemented them in a generalist algorithm for synthetic gene design. Subsequently, we have recently revealed a generalist means to boost heterologous chloroplast expression by utilizing the dormant Shine-Dalgarno mechanism. Thus high foreign expression can be achieved in any cultivated algal or plant species.

We are currently working on scaling algae-farming techniques; whether grown for the production of high value materials or simply as crops rich in fatty acids and protein, up-scaling algae cultivation faces a series of barriers. These include contamination, predation, and energetic considerations. We are in the midst of designing a pilot algae farm in which we wish to implement our knowledge regarding genetic engineering and algae cultivation to grow species with a mix of natural and engineered characteristics, including: rapid cell division, high expression of valuable proteins and hallo-tolerance. Our goal is to optimize growth conditions and monitoring in order to maximize the productivity of the culture.


Shiran Oren

Changing value of primary reinforcers

My research focuses on human maladaptive eating-behaviors. Every day, people choose to eat unhealthy foods, despite being aware of severely damaging consequences. Such less optimal health choices may be a consequence of food being a primary-reinforcer. It elicits an unconditional hedonic response, which can be experienced on a spectrum from very good to very bad depending on its tastiness. The unconditional response elicited by foods is used to change value of other, neutral cues. Money, does not have any primary rewarding qualities on its own, but due to its continuous association with primary-reinforcers (such as food and other comforts) it changes its value and becomes a secondary-reinforcer. Surprisingly, it is not entirely clear if and how the brain processes differently primary and secondary-reinforcers. This is partly due to challenges performing experiments on humans with primary-reinforcers. During imaging studies, one lies inside the MRI scanner with minimal movement. Thus, the majority of studies on rewards are conducted only with secondary-reinforcers.

For the study of taste consumption, we constructed a unique liquid-delivery system, which allows the consumption of actual taste during fMRI scans. This system opens a scientific window into the study of neural response to taste consumption, and primary-reinforcers. Using this unique system, only used in a few centers around the world, we aim to explore the differences between primary and secondary-reinforcers and thus shed light on basic mechanisms of the human brain. Moreover, in the longer term this will provide solid scientific ground for the development of successful eating-behavior interventions.


Shira Bukchin

Food for Hope: The Role of Personal Resources in Farmers’ Adoption of Sustainable Technology

Significant impacts of climate change are expected to be felt among smallholder farmers in developing countries, who produce a major share of the global food supply, and paradoxically also contribute to climate change. Technologies promise to play a significant part in creating a sustainable future in the agriculture sector. Clearly, however, for benefiting from technologies they have to be adopted. Why are smallholders not using proven, modern cultivation technologies? Rather than focusing on socio-economic and information gaps, we suggest a pioneering set of explanatory factors that have not yet been considered in the scholarship. We offer a new perspective, suggesting that personal variables, such as cognitive goal-oriented hope, character strengths, and self-control, prompt the adoption of sustainable technologies. We empirically test this hypothesis in a wide scale field study in Senegal and Nepal. The contribution of the study is threefold: From a theoretical perspective, the study develops the emergent field of positive sustainability by proposing new theoretical connections between positive psychology literature and literature on green technology adoption and helps fill some existing gaps in the understanding of technology implementation rates. Empirically, the study collects new relevant and tests the theoretical hypotheses. In addition to its theoretical and empirical contribution, the importance of this study lies in its practical value: The study focuses on variables that are malleable and could be influenced by policy tools and education. Thus, this model attempts to add to the extant literature by leading to practical recommendations with the aim of assisting sustainable technology diffusion.


Yoav Rothler

Social and Economic Impacts of Irrigation on Smallholder Agriculture in India

 My research studies the effectiveness of India’s large Soil Health Cards Program to encourage farmers to apply balanced doses of fertilizers to their crops. Imbalanced use of chemical fertilizers is a major threat to the local and the global environment. In India and in many other developing countries, it also has major fiscal implications since fertilizers are heavily subsidized. The government of India has therefore committed significant financial and human resources to the Soil Health Card program. Under this program, all 140 million farmers in India will receive updated soil health cards every three years which will carry recommendations regarding optimal fertilization based on soil tests carried in their own land. In order to gain some first empirical evidence on the performance of the program, I took part in a research held in the Indian state of Bihar that approximated the government’s intervention. Beyond its importance for food security policy, the study also contributes to the understanding of the importance of providing scientific information to farmers in the adoption of environmentally sound practices in agriculture.

The research was conducted using a randomized control trial in which a group of farmers were randomly selected and then randomly divided into a treatment group that received Soil Health Cards and a control group that didn’t receive the cards. Results show that providing scientific recommendations on fertilizer application based on soil tests from the farmers’ own field has very little effect on their fertilizer use in the next season. Lack of trust in the new information and a limited ability to understand the scientific information seem to be the main reasons for not adopting the scientific recommendations.


Aakash Jog

Bio-electrochemical Plant Sensors with Agricultural Applications

We propose to research and develop a novel plant sensor system based on a new concept developed in TAU. This concept opens up new opportunities for precision agriculture, in which the data is collected directly from the plant, as opposed to secondary elements from the plant’s environment. Thus, the system gives exact information about the plant’s status and well-being.

An integrated electronics system handles the entire process — right from sensor actuation to data aggregation and analysis. This allows for the system to be used as a standalone unit in a large network of sensors, thus creating an "internet of things" network for plant sensors. This approach can be used for various agricultural applications, including sensing parameters such as plant dehydration, plant malnutrition, plant toxic response, and possibly also plant signalling compounds. Such a network can provide insight into accurate and large-scale data about the plants’ health and well being. This can be used to develop a sustainable agricultural system based on accurate, low-cost, and  mass-producible electronics. With an approach targeting the majority of food producers rather than cash crop producers, we hope to provide solutions to major problems in essential food production.


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