Israeli agritech firm aims for big boost in crop yields
* Genome doubling process occurs naturally in plants
* Enhanced crops are not genetically modified
* Seeds expected to be marketed in 2016
* Company has recently raised $65 million investment
By Ori Lewis and Rinat Harash
MOSHAV SARONA, Israel, Nov 15 (Reuters) - An Israeli enterprise which aims to boost global crop yields without the aid of genetic modification will sow its first commercial seeds within three years, the company pioneering the technique has told Reuters.
Seed technology firm Kaiima Bio-Agritech says it has developed a way to greatly speed up the multiplication of the genome of crops, known as genome doubling, without changing their DNA, or genetic fingerprint.
It is as if a piece of string were thickened into a rope by adding more fibres of the same material, making it stronger and more durable. In agriculture, it means enhancing seeds so that they produce more plentiful and robust crops.
Kaiima has kept secret how it has achieved its breakthrough and says it has filed a number of patents worldwide. Independent experts contacted by Reuters declined to comment on the work, saying they did not have enough details.
In a tour of Kaiima's experimental crop fields in northern Israel, company officials displayed examples of what they said were crops improved by its new technique.
Doron Gal, Kaiima's chief executive officer, said that by 2050, farmers will need to meet the "daunting challenge" of producing 70 percent more food than they do currently to sustain a growing world population.
Kaiima, the Hebrew word for sustainability, said that by 2016 it expects to be able to deliver to growers the basis for producing seeds for enhanced wheat, corn and rice for food and castor for bio-fuel and bio-polymer production.
Israel is considered a world leader in agricultural technology development with irrigation techniques, hot houses and computerised animal feeding systems among leading exported products, the Israel Export Institute said.
Income from agritech exports in 2011 amounted to $3.4 billion, out of a total of $91.7 billion in Israeli exports for that year, according to official figures.
Kaiima, founded in 2007, said in September that it had raised some $65 million in equity from international investors. It does not have any plans for an IPO in the foreseeable future.
"Our plan is for this funding to finance our operation through 2016 when we are going to be able to bring our product to the market ... we will produce seeds together with partners that will be similar in price to regular seeds," Gal said.
Genome doubling evolves in nature, but only over thousands of years. Scientists have been trying since the 1940s to speed up the process but had not been able to avoid damage to a crop's core characteristics.
Gal said Kaiima had managed to achieve a crop's stability by respecting the integrity of its original DNA. Kaiima expects that its technology will result in an initial 25 percent improvement in crop yields.
Asked by Reuters about Kaiima's breakthrough claim, five experts in the field of agricultural genetics at leading Israeli academic institutions declined to comment, saying they did not have enough information about the company's work.
One scientist confirmed Gal's statement that attempts to speed up genome doubling had been tried for decades but added that neither he nor any other researcher he knew of had managed to unlock the secret for doing it successfully.
Stronger plants have been developed during genome doubling attempts in the past, but Gal said their lack of genetic stability meant they could not produce seeds for subsequent generations.
Kaiima's main centre is based in a cluster of portable cabins in a farming community in northern Israel's agricultural heartland. The company has taken over a number of fields at various locations in the area for its crop experiments.
In its rice crop trial, Kaiima planted seed variants and breeders picked out the best results to continue laboratory work on the most successful strains.
Alon Lerner, Kaiima's senior breeder, displayed an enhanced yield of bigger plants and grains. He said they had received the same amount of water and nutrition as crops to which the technology had not been applied.
Kaiima's recent injection of cash has come from three new investors: Horizons Ventures, which manages the private technology investments of Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing, the World Bank's private sector arm International Finance Corp (IFC) and Infinity Group, a China-focused private equity fund.
It also received new funds from existing investors that include DFJ, DFJ-Tamir Fishman, Mitsui, KPCB, Oberlee and Musea Ventures. (Writing by Ori Lewis; Additional reporting by Tova Cohen; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Giles Elgood)