Gov't funding tuna farming research in Eilat

Netanyahu at the National Center for Mariculture (NCM) in Eilat / Photo: Yud Photography

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects the assertion that the government is funding the project because it was initiated by his brother-in-law.

"The tuna farming project is the food of the future. Many countries want this. Think of this as the Unit 8200 that we want to expand and involve startups with," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week on a visit to the National Center for Mariculture (NCM) in Eilat. NCM is a research institute that will receive a special NIS 90 million budget for a unique experiment: raising bluefin tuna in captivity. Netanyahu was accompanied on his visit by his wife, Sara, and Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel.

The project which Netanyahu was speaking about was initiated by Amatzia Ben-Artzi, Sara Netanyahu's brother, a technology veteran who has invested in tech companies and maritime agriculture. He is a partner in a venture for growing a crab that produces amorphous calcium, a mineral marketed as a food supplement considered helpful to people with various diseases, such as osteoporosis and cancer, and in knitting fractures. This venture, which has raised $30 million, is currently conducting clinical trials to attain the status of a drug for the supplement. Ben Artzi presented the project to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in 2016, and persuaded Netanyahu and Ariel to invest in the tuna project.

The family connection doesn't stop there. In their visit to NCM, the Netanyahus were welcomed by NCM director Dr. Hanna Rosenfeld, a specialist in fish reproduction, who led the research. The visit took place on the day following a special cabinet meeting in Eilat designed to soothe people after the closing down of Sde Dov Airport. The cabinet meeting decided on NIS 400 million in investments in Eilat. Ben Artzi's daughter-in-law is Rosenfeld's niece.

"Avi Simhon objected and was concerned about the risks"

The tuna growing project is a process of controlled reproduction and raising and fattening newly hatched tuna for sale on the global fish market, in which bluefin tuna is regarded as a delicacy, and for which demand is especially strong in the sushi market. The economic value of success in such a project is believed to be in the billions of dollars.

Rosenfeld is being advised in her research by former NCM director Dr. Hillel Gordin, a well-known scientist and leader in fish research. Gordin headed a research group that obtained European financing in 2002 for research about laying tuna eggs in captivity in open sea fish farms in cooperation with research groups from European countries. The research later branched off into larvae, here also with 15 research groups from eight European countries. The research did not yield the hoped-for results, and has come to a halt.

Rosenfeld succeeded Gordin in the project, and presented the research and its consequences to Ben Artzi. Ben Artzi, who was convinced of the project's national importance, took up himself the role of an intermediary in passing the idea to Netanyahu and Ariel. Ben Artzi believes that success in the research will be one of the most important achievements of Israeli science, and can help the world in an area considered especially important in animal and fish food forecasts.

Netanyahu invited Gordin and Rosenfeld to his office to hear more details from the scientists about the research. Also present at the meeting was National Economic Council chairman and former head of the Hebrew University agricultural economics department Prof. Avi Simhon. Netanyahu was enthusiastic, but Gordin says that Simhon was less so, expressing concern about the risks incurred in the research.

Following the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development began measures for funding the research. In the first stage, reported in "Globes," NCM received NIS 4 million a year ago to assemble the initial infrastructure for the project.

Gordin says that progress has been made in utilizing natural egg-laying by the fish in cages and in control, but adds, "The problem is that the natural egg-laying season of tuna is very short, so there isn't enough time to conduct the research, and that is where it stalled. We're talking about land-based egg-laying facility in large pools, in which the conditions for egg-laying and growing can be controlled, because then there will be eggs for a long period. I see very good chances of success, but it needs investment, not talk."

A senior fish scientist says, "The economic significance of domesticating tuna is very great; it could affect the entire global economy. A company or country that finds a way to domesticate tuna can make a profit. Although the goal is ambitious and the chance of success is not high, investing NIS 90 million for a chance of this type appears promising.

"At the same time, it should be taken into account that in contrast to other cases, tuna are not in any danger of extinction, and quotas of 30,000 tons are harvested annually. Growing tuna in captivity is an extreme case of the waste of marine resources involved in growing fish in ponds and/or cages. It is estimated that in order to grow one kilogram of tuna, 7 kilograms of fish must be taken from the oceans in order to feed the tuna."

"Good people with creative minds"

How should we regard Netanyahu's decision to support investing tens of millions of shekels in research on food from the sea recommended by his brother-in-law, when the initial stages of a joint project with European Union countries failed to achieve results? If the research is successful and its value is in the billions, as is being asserted, it will be an important solution for the global food problem. Aren't thanks due to the person who came up with the idea?

Netanyahu's remarks at the cabinet meeting and during his visit to NCM make it seem like the tuna project was one of his main concerns. At the outset of the cabinet meeting in Eilat, the day before the visit to NCM, he said, "The most important thing that we're going to build here may be a park for developing food from the sea. This is the food of the future. We can't continue feeding mankind protein from the land - it's too expensive, inefficient, polluting, and difficult. It will certainly remain, but the protein of the future will be synthetic protein. It will take a long time, however, before we know whether it exists. What definitely exists is the ability to take tiny fish that become big fish in the sea. This is the food technology of tomorrow, and it's already here. I want to make Eilat a tourism center and a center of knowledge and technology for food from the sea."

The government already decided previously to remove NCM from the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR) and attach it as a subsidiary of the Agricultural Research Organization of Israel (ARO) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, or to make it an independent government company. When the cabinet made its decision last week, it said, "A park for food industries from the sea, marine agriculture, and marine technologies will be established in the Mishtalot and Ein Evrona area. The government will promote the establishment of an innovation and knowledge community in marine biology and agriculture that will operate from Eilat and the Eilot region, and take action to attract foreign investors to Eilat, with an emphasis on marine biology and agriculture. A team will be set up, headed by the Prime Minister's Office director general, to devise a plan for empowering the NCM, promoting a small project, and domesticating tuna."

On his visit to NCM, Netanyahu remarked, "The technology is fantastic. We have decided to invest millions of shekels here, first of all, in order to jumpstart the research and, later, together with Minister Ariel, to bring in additional global companies."

On the visit, Ariel declared, "Israel is a world leader in research and development. Israel has priceless knowledge in marine fish agriculture and creating protein from the sea, the world's future food. The Israeli government, through the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, has approved a large budget for advancing this promising field. Thanks to yesterday's cabinet decision and approval of the budgets, we will continue to promote research and development for the Israeli agricultural sector."

"We have an uncommon opportunity before us," Rosensfeld added. "Conditions are ripe, and the ability and motivation exists for achieving the great vision of the prime minister and the minister of agriculture by bringing about the blue revolution."

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development announced that it was proud of NCM's budget, and that according to external economic survey, research could find an important solution for the world food shortage, and was economically worthwhile for Israel and its farmers. The ministry stated, "We get the best ideas about the areas in which research and development should be conducted from good people with creative and enterprising minds - sometimes from the public sector, but usually from the private sector. What they all have in common is that the contribution of research to the Israeli economy is important to them."

Asked whether he had any business connection with the project, and whether he intended to invest in it, Ben Artzi answered, "Absolutely not."

Netanyahu was asked about his decision to budget the projected in spite of the fact that NCM's previous research failed to yield results, to what extent Ben Artzi affected the initiative, and whether the family influenced the decision to budget the project. Netanyahu was also asked on which professional opinions his decision was based.

The Prime Minister's Office said in response, "We reject the groundless allegations of a personal connection of the prime minister to the project. Amatzia Ben Artzi did not invest in the project, and stated that he would not do so. The connection that the correspondent is trying to make between the prime minister and Rosenfeld is imaginary and ridiculous - Rosenfeld is the aunt of the wife of the son of the brother of the wife of the prime minister.

"The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is the professional agency that examined the matter and stated, together with professional organizations, that the research would make a major contribution to the development of growth engines for Eilat and the Israeli economy. The prime minister said that just as we made Israel into a cybersecurity power, we would make it a power in technologies in food from the sea."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 14, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Netanyahu at the National Center for Mariculture (NCM) in Eilat / Photo: Yud Photography
Netanyahu at the National Center for Mariculture (NCM) in Eilat / Photo: Yud Photography
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