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Defying war’s, self-drying cherry tomatoes ripen near Gaza

The first plants of a new cherry tomato species that self-dries naturally were planted in September at greenhouses in Netiv Ha’asara, in the agricultural heartland of southern Israel and one of the best places to grow tomatoes, on the border with the Gaza Strip.

The first orders of the fruit, developed by an Israeli genomics company, were supposed to be shipped at the start of 2024. Then, on Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists burst into southern Israel from Gaza, killing close to 1,200 people and abducting 253 hostages. The greenhouses were wrecked, the plants were ruined, and the Thai agricultural workers fled.

“Everything was destroyed,” said Gil Ronen, the founder and CEO of NRGene, which uses algorithms to map out the genetic makeup of plants to increase their yields and resilience.

But even before October was over, the work restarted. As the war raged on and rocket alerts pierced the skies, company employees worked with farmers to replant the saplings in Moshav Yated, which is also in the Gaza envelope but further away from the border.

These cherry tomatoes come with a twist: instead of being pleasingly plump, they look wrinkled, more like a raisin or a dried cranberry. That is because they have self-dried naturally on the vine, offering a burst of sweet and sour flavor to the palate with four times the juiciness of sun-dried tomatoes, the founder says.

“The product is completely natural, it didn’t undergo genetic engineering, nor gene editing,” said Ronen.

NRGene, whose shares are traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and has a market value of NIS 39 million ($11 million), said last month it was setting up Supree, a food tech subsidiary, to develop naturally self-drying fruits that also preserve their nutritional value and flavor.

The self-dried tomatoes, which the firm calls semi-dried, are Supree’s first product — expected to hit the market in the first half of this year, initially just to premium business customers in Israel, Europe, and the Middle East, including restaurants, hotels, catering companies, and food manufacturers.

The self-drying feature is a completely natural characteristic of wild tomatoes that originally grew in South America, Ronen explained.

After they ripen, wild tomatoes dry up so as not to rot too quickly, he said. When developers started cultivating tomatoes for agricultural purposes, they focused on the species that stayed beautiful and plump for the longest time, ignoring those with the stronger self-drying characteristic, which makes them look more like a raisin than a tomato.

“We took what everyone threw away and brought it back,” said Ronen, who is also the CEO of Supree.

This self-drying trait, he said, has advantages for the food industry: the first one is a longer shelf life and the second is that there is no release of excess water. A tomato that is plump due to water content soon loses its glory, tends to rot quickly, and has a shelf life of a few days to up to two weeks. In addition, when you put water-plump sliced tomatoes in processed foods such as frozen pizza, when the product is defrosted the tomatoes release water.

“But if you use tomatoes that are already dry,” Ronen said, “even after defrosting they stay unchanged. So, they are very suitable for frozen products.”

The tomatoes are grown in greenhouses over a period of four months, and can be cultivated in a controlled environment at least 11 months a year. The produce is suitable for mechanical harvesting, meaning it can be picked by robots or combine harvesters, which helps to “significantly lower growing costs,” he said, as it reduces the need for an expensive and often unavailable workforce.

The tomatoes developed by Supree are the cherry tomato type. They initially weigh 15 grams (half an ounce) and then, after they dry on the vine, just three grams each. The natural drying process preserves the rich taste, vibrant color, vitamins, and antioxidants of the product, “resulting in a superfood that loses about 80% of its original weight” when ripe, intensifying its flavor and nutritional concentration, NRGene said in a statement last month.

The self-drying trait of the tomatoes was first identified by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while the Volcani Institute for agricultural research, based in Rishon Lezion, was the first to isolate the gene that is responsible for this trait some 25 years ago.

“So, it is really an Israeli development,” said Ronen. But the product was never developed commercially, he explained, because the tomatoes were too expensive, as the yields of the plants were low.

And that is when the technology developed by NRGene came in handy: the team used the algorithms developed by the startup to identify self-drying tomato species that have an especially high yield.

Free of sugar, chemicals, and preservatives

Using NRGene’s algorithms, the Supree team also focused on developing the species that are the tastiest, most resilient to diseases, and most filled with vitamins — even more than a regular cherry tomato, the startup says. “Our NRGene technology allowed us to do all this in two years rather than what could have taken seven years,” Ronen said.

The potential market size for Supree’s tomatoes is estimated to reach $1.5 billion by 2030, the firm said in its statement, with the company targeting the $16 billion dried tomato market. Additionally, the Supree tomatoes could become a substitute product in the $10.2 billion dried fruit market, the $4.4 billion frozen fruit market, and the $60 billion superfood market, the company said.

“The texture of our tomatoes is soft,” said Ronen. “We just pick them, wash them and pack them, without the use of chemicals, preservatives, or salt.” The self-dried tomatoes can be used as a replacement for cranberries or even raisins, he said.

The firm initially grew an experimental 100 kilograms of self-dried tomatoes to give to local chefs to try. The chefs have used them in a variety of dishes, including desserts, because of their natural sweetness. “They go very well with chocolate, for example,” said Ronen.

The chefs also came up with the idea of grinding the dried tomatoes to sweeten hamburgers, for example. They can also be used to garnish pizzas or cut into small pieces and put into a soup or added to health shakes.

Supree has published a variety of chef-inspired recipes that include the tomatoes on its website, including an artichoke pasta with black olives and the tomatoes; a seared fish fillet on a bed of spinach and the tomatoes; a bruschetta with zaatar, duqqa and the tomatoes; and a green salad with the tomatoes, basil leaves, different kinds of lettuce, cucumbers and cashews. There is also a zaatar panna cotta dessert with hibiscus-sage syrup and the tomatoes.

Ran Shmueli from the Claro restaurant in Tel Aviv was one of the chefs who experimented with Supree’s semi-dried tomatoes.

“We are always happy to incorporate high-quality, innovative Israeli ingredients into our menus,” he said. “Occasionally, I come across something truly new. And such are the cherry tomatoes that self-dry on the vine. Their taste, uniqueness, and innovation elevate and enrich our dishes and menus.”

Supree is working with tomato growers in Israel. Only at a second stage, when consumers get used to seeing the product in restaurants, will they target the consumer market, Ronen said.

Supree has set up a joint venture with Tzabar Tech, an initiative to promote technological innovation in the agrifood sector, to ensure the growing and the post harvesting process of its tomatoes.

The firm has not priced the final product yet, said Ronen, but its price will be similar to that of raisins, sun-dried tomatoes or cranberries.

In addition to tomatoes, Supree will focus on other fruit and vegetables that can self-dry on the plant, such as certain types of peppers, eggplants, and zucchini, and develop diverse types of tomatoes with a variety of colors, he added.

Shoshanna Solomon