Vegetable stand at Mahane Yehuda Market. Jerusalem, Nov 7, 2019. (Yehonatan Valtser/TPS)

Researchers at the Israeli Syngenta Vegetable Seeds Company, a world leader in agro-technology, have reached a breakthrough with the development of a new tomato variety.


After five years of intensive work, researchers at the Israeli Syngenta Vegetable Seeds Company, a world leader in agro-technology, have reached a breakthrough with the development of a new tomato variety, the world’s first variety resistant (IR) to the tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBFRV), which over the past six years has laid waste to more than 50% of the tomato crop in Israel and globally.

Israel is the first country in the world to begin growing the new variety in greenhouses in the Northwest Negev. Because the variety is resistant to the virus, it will be possible to rehabilitate tomato growing, much of which was wiped out by the virus.

With the re-entry of growers, it will be possible to expand the sector to its former size . It will also mean significant growth in Israeli tomato yields, and therefore, far less or even no more tomato imports into Israel and lower prices for consumers.

Until 2014, annual tomato crop yields in Israel reached an average of some 200,000 tons. Infection by the ToBRFV virus led to a year on year, persistent drop in yields, which reached just 50% of their previous heights, with the resultant economic damage reaching some NIS 120 million. Dozens of small farms in Israel faced financial collapse. The sharp drop in yields also led to higher prices for the consumer and the import of unprecedented quantities of tomatoes, primarily from Turkey and the Gaza Strip.

According to Ministry of Agriculture statistics, tomato imports have been growing consistently and in 2019, and tomatoes constituted almost 40% of fresh vegetable imports.

The Plant Council’s statistics show that while 3,000 tons of tomatoes were imported in 2014, 40,000 tons were imported in 2019 following the persistent drop in domestic yields.

The crisis has also had adverse effects on tomato prices for the consumer. In 2013, the average retail price for one kilogram of tomatoes was NIS 5.16, but by 2019, it had risen to NIS 6.46.

Idan Alon, who is a tomato grower in the Northwest Negev Region and is growing the new resistant variety named Lansor, said that “over recent years, I and my fellow growers have felt helpless when faced with a virus that reduced yields by 50%. We were forced to destroy enormous quantities of tomatoes and some have even moved over to growing different crops. The good news from Zeraim Gedera – Syngenta constitutes for us, hope and an expectation that we will be able to go back to growing healthy, resistant tomatoes for Israeli consumers.”

“As early as this stage I can see that the new variety plants are promising and resistant; they are in very good condition and the potential for an efficient, healthy crop are definitely there,” he said.

The team of agronomists at Zeraim Gedera – Syngenta, together with tomato growers in the Northwest Negev, have established greenhouses with an area of one hectare to grow and breed the new variety and this month, marketing to the supermarket chains in Israel will begin.

When the deadly ToBRFV virus was first found in 2014, a global race began in seed companies’ research laboratories and research institutes, all in an effort to find a tomato variety with resistance to the virus. The Syngenta Company’s R&D laboratories made the first breakthrough.

The tomato is one of the most important crops in agriculture all over the globe. In Israel, annual tomato consumption per capita averages about 20 kilograms. There are 400 tomato growers in Israel working a total area of some 2,400 hectares.