Growing Crops in Salty Soil

An estimated 20% of the world’s irrigated soil is too salty to grow crops, costing farmers some $12 billion per year. Now there is a solution.

SaliCrop, co-founded by Technion alumnus Sharon Devir ’88, M.S.’91, has devised a seed treatment that enables a wide range of crops to grow in high-saline conditions on a large, commercial scale. Trials in Israel and India have shown that SaliCrop increased yields from between 6% to 32% for crops including wheat, rice, corn, tomatoes, pepper, and spinach.

“The basic idea is to be able to employ a simple treatment to cultivate marginal land that otherwise cannot be used today,” said Devir. An agricultural engineer and entrepreneur, he hopes SaliCrop will make significant strides towards overcoming the growing problem of too much salt in our water and soil, warding off the looming food crisis.

Sharon Devir

Soil salinity is caused by rising sea levels, drought, and over fertilization — conditions that have been exacerbated with climate change.

SaliCrop works by treating seeds in a wet chemical process tailored to the specific crop. The seed treatment activates genes that help crops cope with environmental stress such as drought, heat, and salinity. The SaliCrop method does not involve selective breeding or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and only uses “GRAS” chemicals, an acronym for Generally Recognized As Safe by the national regulatory authorities.

Growing up in Tel Aviv, Devir looked for a profession “in which I would not spend my life under artificial light in an office.” He landed at the Technion, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering. Devir is quick to say he was not a good student, yet he owes much of his success to his alma mater. “The tools I received at the Technion gave me the ability to open a manual, read a scientific paper, and talk to scientists to understand what they are doing and manage them,” he said. “When I come across a new technology or idea, I can handle it. The Technion teaches you how to think — this is one of its biggest advantages.”

He went on to receive his Ph.D. at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he devoted his time to practical engineering at the quasi-governmental Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Engineering.

Throughout the years, Devir has founded and invested in many ventures. In 2017, he started Rimonim Agro Fund, a VC aimed at food security tech, to invest in SaliCrop, Skyx, a precision agriculture spraying company, and Sufresca, edible coatings for fresh produce that extends shelf life and more. Alongside his position as chairman of SaliCrop, he is also a general partner at Rimonim, the director of Skyx, and executive director of another agri-tech company he launched, Roots Sustainable Agricultural Technologies Ltd., which he took public three years ago as CEO. “Even though I’m running the funds and companies, I still spend at least one day in the field,” he said.

SaliCrop traces its roots to 2014, when Rca Godbodle, a plant biologist from India, visited Israel looking for partners to help commercialize her product. She met with Devir and agronomist Omar Massarwa, who was an investor in Devir’s earlier NGT, the first private Jewish-Arab technological incubator in Israel. The three worked under the radar for nearly three years developing the SaliCrop treatment. After they had demonstrated proof of concept with several types of produce, they started the company.

Next Steps? Devir and his team are planning to expand into Australia, Mexico, and part of Africa. They are also testing treatments for additional crops including millet, cotton, and carrots. “For most of the last 10 years I’ve been working only in projects around food security and sustainability,” Devir said. When asked why that focus is so important he replied modestly: “the answer is in the question.”