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Volcani Institute post-harvest innovations help Israeli growers

Dr. Ron Porat

While Israeli growers certainly have their share of challenges, including high labor costs and water scarcity, they also have several things in their favor. One of those advantages is the Volcani Institute, the research arm of the Ministry of Agriculture, where researchers work on practical breakthroughs to help Israeli growers better ship their produce all over the world.

“When we send fruit to Europe, it takes us longer,” said Dr. Ron Porat, head of the post harvest department at Volcani. “So we need to make sure the product is of the best quality, even after four or six weeks.” Porat's work is focused on ways to extend the shelf life of fresh produce, and the benefits of his department's work can be seen in many of the commodities Israeli growers export today.

Mangoes are very sensitive for stem rot, the Volcani institute found a treatment for this problem.

“Stem rot is a problem with many commodities,” explained Porat, “because fruit will look fine during picking and sorting, but it's something that can develop in storage.” Further complicating things are European Union regulations that limit the amount and types of chemicals growers and shippers can use to treat fruit. Because most Israeli exports go to European markets, it's imperative that any solution be well within E.U. rules. Fortunately for growers, Porat's department was able to devise a system to combat rot without the aid of banned chemicals.

“In the Dept. of Postharvest Science, we did a lot of research on rot, and we found we could treat fruit for that with water and a mild acid bath,” said Porat. “We first treat the fruit with hot water, brush it and dip it in the acid solution.” Though it's not a 100 percent fix, Porat said it significantly cuts down on rot by taking out the pathogens that can cause it. Similarly, potatoes, which are the largest Israeli export by volume, can't be treated with chemicals because so much of the commodity goes to countries who limit the exposure of their food to chemicals. When we tried to find the best way to store potatoes, they also had to contend with the limits imposed on them by E.U. regulations.

Mint oil in a box potatoes against germination

“There are two harvest seasons for potatoes, so there's lots of time when they're in storage,” said Porat. “The problem is that they begin to germinate after some time, and that results in a loss of quality. In the past, you could apply chemicals, but that's no longer the case.” After much research, investigators discovered that fumigating potatoes with mint oil significantly decreased germination while in storage.

Stepax Xtend packaging for a longer shelf life for pomegranates

But researchers at Volcani also realize the importance of the actual shipping process, so they devote much time and effort to finding ways in which to transport commodities with the least amount of spoilage. For fresh herbs and pomegranates, Porat's team devised a system in which the products are shipped in micro-perforated modified atmosphere bags to ensure optimal conditions while in transit.

“We can store pomegranates for a long time in a low-oxygen, low-temperature environment,” said Porat. “So the special film we use to package them allows us to maintain those conditions for a long time.” While the oxygen content of a normal atmosphere is around 21 percent, the bag maintains an oxygen level of about 15 percent, and it also regulates humidity so pomegranates are kept in peak condition throughout their journey. Porat explained that the bags ensure a long shelf life for fruit in terms of physical appearance and internal quality. That's very important for commodities like pomegranates, which are becoming increasingly valuable for their nutritional content.

“It was initially impossible to store pomegranates for more than a few weeks, but now we can keep them for almost four months with our special bags,” said Porat. “That's without compromising the taste or the antioxidants and polyphenols that make pomegranates so appealing.” But solutions to post-harvest problems don't always take the form of a high-tech bag. Sometimes, like in the case of onions and peppers, all it takes is a change in procedure.

Onions with hot water treatment and without.

“We had the problem of onions that peeled and looked unattractive to consumers,” said Porat. “So we put the onions through a heat treatment, and that took care of the peeling problem.” Similarly, while south Israel's hot, dry climate allows growers to produce peppers for much of the year, the arid conditions contribute to the accumulation of dirt and pathogens that compromise shelf life. Volcani's researchers fixed that with the help of a hot water treatment. The boost in shelf life allowed growers to begin shipping to markets farther away, like the U.S. and Canada.

Left: Apples treated with nitrogen gas against browning
Right: Herbs packed in blue bags with coloured stripes. For each commodity of herb there is a special bag.

As a research institution, Volcani puts out research papers and its staff attends many conferences throughout the world. Additionally, they disseminate discoveries through seminars which they encourage Israeli growers to attend. By spreading their knowledge, the institute contributes to the thriving agricultural industry in Israel. But as Porat mentioned, increasing competition from other countries makes their mission a vital one: to continually improve the quality and shelf life of Israeli produce through post-harvest innovations.

This is an overview of various pomegranates and the taste, Hereby they select the best pomegranate in a taste panel.

“Everything is now available all the time, so the only way people will buy your product is if it's of high quality and tastes good,” said Porat. “There's so much competition now, so we have to always improve, and we can do that with better storage in order to preserve taste and quality.”

For more information:
Ron Porat, Ph.D.
Volcani Institute
Tel: +972 3 968 3617