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Salicrop tomato cultivation
SaliCrop can help boost crop cultivation in arid regions, raising yields and elevating the value of marginal land. Image credit: Guy Shery

Heat, salinity, drought… SaliCrop tackles abiotic stress trifecta with seed enhancement tech

February 29, 2024

Demand for ‘climate smart’ crops is rising as farmers battle abiotic stressors from saline soil and drought to heat stress. But breeding new varieties is costly and time-consuming, says Israeli startup SaliCrop, which is approaching the problem from a different angle with seed treatments that can help plants thrive in tougher environments.

“The breeding approach is always there,” SaliCrop CEO Carmit Oron told AgFunderNews. “But when a seed company develops a new variety, it can take at least five to eight years to enter a new variety into the market. And farmers don’t like to change varieties, they’re very traditional.

“If you look at the many regions where we’re working, we’re seeing commercial varieties of tomatoes for example that have been grown for years, and getting those farmers to change is very hard. We’re offering a more rapid solution to their declining yields.

“What people like about our approach is that we can work with commercial seed varieties that are already in the market and help them perform better.”

“The greatest concerns occupying farmers today is how to maintain yields in the face of volatile and harsh climate conditions which lead to poor soil quality. More than 830 million hectares of agricultural land is now salty. Abiotic stresses are responsible for 30-50% loss of agricultural productivity worldwide.” Dr. Sharon Devir, cofounder & chairman, SaliCrop

Activating natural mechanisms in the plant without altering its genome

Rather than introducing foreign genes, inducing mutagenesis, or editing the genetic machinery of plants using tech such as CRISPR, SaliCrop is using its understanding of genetics to activate natural stress mechanisms already in the plant.

SaliCrop intentionally exposes the seeds to controlled abiotic stressors to activate innate stress-response mechanisms enabling them to better handle periods of intense heat, prolonged dry spells, low water, and salty soil, explained Oron, who took the helm at SaliCrop in September 2021.

“We soak the seeds with a proprietary combination of up to 10 materials for 6-12 hours. We’re not using biologicals, and for regulatory purposes, it’s similar to priming [pre-soaking seeds and then drying them to improve germination rates or confer other benefits]. After we dry the seeds they are the same weight; we’re not coating them and there’s no residues on the seed, so you can call it seed enhancement rather than seed treatment. We’re making the plants healthier.”

The formulations, developed by SaliCrop’s cofounders plant biologist and former Syngenta exec Dr. Ṛcā Godbole (CSO) and agronomist Dr. Sharon Devir (investor, chairman) over the past 10 years, must be tailored to every crop and variety, said Oron.

“We highlight the dominant commercial varieties of target crops in the key markets where we want to operate. In Spain, for example, we’re working on the leading commercial varieties in processing tomatoes growing in open fields and measuring performance over three years to demonstrate that what’s working in the lab works in an open field.”

Asked about IP, she explained, “It’s easier to write a patent on a process or machine than a formulation, and so at this stage, we’ve decided to keep the knowledge as a trade secret.”

“Plants have certain environmental stress inducible genes that act as internal alarms. When there is too much salt, or too much heat, these alarms go off and the plant enters defense mode. But often, by the time the plant reacts, it’s too late.” Dr. Ṛcā Godbole, cofounder & CSO, SaliCrop

High-value, high-margin crops

To date, SaliCrop has conducted research on 15 crops including tomatoes, capsicum, broccoli, onions, rice, corn, wheat, and alfalfa, said Oron, who is targeting Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India.

“When I joined the company two and a half years ago, we knew we needed to focus on high-value, high-margin crops. So we started mapping countries and how many hectares are being grown of these crops to understand the net income for farmers so we could understand where our pricing needed to be.

“We’re now selling in Israel this season for processing tomatoes, having shown through trials over three years that we can increase yields by up to 15% for open field tomatoes, and now we’re expanding globally. We’re also generating revenue from our work in Serbia.”

In Spain, said cofounder Dr. Sharon Devir, extensive field trials with the leading commercial seed varieties have generated “promising outcomes, including substantial enhancements in plant growth with a 10-17% increase in yield.”

The business model

SaliCrop has two business models, she said. “One is treating seeds as a service, so we get the seeds in, we treat them, we send them back, and we price by the number of seeds treated. If we’re working with farmers, the pricing is based on hectares.

“However, in the longer term, we see that seed companies will want to include our treatment into their value chains because it will be specific to their seed varieties, so we will license our tech to the seed company.”

“Under SaliCrop’s treatment, plants not only thrive in poor quality, highly saline soil through enhanced nutrient absorption and improved root structures, but they also exhibit increased vigor and superior germination rates.” Carmit Oron, CEO, SaliCrop

Extreme salinity

Soil salinity is a growing problem driven by multiple factors including sea water intrusion into coastal aquifers, prompting strong interest in SaliCrop’s technology, claimed Oron.

“Every crop has a different threshold for salinity levels that it can handle. For tomatoes, most farmers would tell you that they will grow up to is EC 3 [electrical conductivity measured in deciSiemens per meter or ds/m], and if they’re crazy, up to up to 4 or 5.

“We’re working with farmers where after severe storms [which can cause salinization of groundwater and soils in coastal areas], the EC in the soil could be 14 or 15, which is extreme.”

Salinity can increase Brix and make sweeter tomatoes, she noted, but farmers typically see smaller tomatoes and lower yields as the tradeoff. “If a farmer would expect to harvest 70 tons [of tomatoes] per hectare, that could go down to just 10 or 11 tons in extremely saline soil.” Using SaliCrop’s tech, farmers can achieve the same sweetness from growing in saline conditions without compromising yield, she claimed.

According to Oron, the immediate market opportunity is to work in areas where crops are already being cultivated but farmers are experiencing declining yields.

But there are also opportunities to convert marginal lands into viable growing regions, she said. “We’re doing some work on that front in Senegal, for example.”

Abiotic stress: Everybody’s rushing for a solution’

To place SaliCrop in context of other companies tackling abiotic stress, she said, “Our focus on salinity is one of our big advantages because we have been working on it for the last six to seven years and gained a lot of experience.”

She added: “[Seed tech] companies are developing abiotic solutions but this often involves coating seeds, whereas our seeds are kind of naked seeds that can work with regenerative and organic agriculture, and in our conversations with seed companies they see that as an advantage.”

Meanwhile, big seed companies such as Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont are doing their own research into tackling abiotic stress via new crop varieties or seed treatments, but are also looking into collaborating with companies supplying technologies in this space, she said.

“Everybody’s rushing for a solution.”

That said, nothing happens overnight in agtech, she stressed. While SaliCrop’s approach can get to market far more quickly than a new crop variety, for example, it still takes time.

“Even if I showed that our approach can deliver in Israel with a certain crop variety, I still have to show I have a solution that works in Italy and Spain with a different variety, as no farmer is willing to buy based on data I’m showing them from other regions.”


SaliCrop was initially funded by its founders before taking on external investment in 2018 from Rimonim Venture Capital [a fund focused on food security and agriculture at which SaliCrop cofounder Dr. Sharon Devir is managing partner], said Oron.

“Most of our stakeholders today are private investors coming from the agriculture sector.”

She added: “As SaliCrop embarks on a major scale-up phase, we are ready to team up with partners who share our vision and wish to grow with us and drive innovation. We’re at an exciting juncture. Our goals are not just about immediate gains but about laying the groundwork for long-term, mutual growth and leveraging our technology to its fullest potential. Having the right partnerships will propel us and our partners into new frontiers of agricultural technology and global impact.”

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