Sesame is an important ingredient in tahini, hummus and other Israeli specialties.

However, the tiny seeds are hard to grow and harvest, making sesame farming an unprofitable venture.

One Israeli researcher, though, is taking the ancient protein source and increasing the enhance the yield and size of the sesame plants, helping to make the humble sesame a cash crop that could ultimately help feed the planet.

Hebrew University’s Zvi Peleg is using careful screening and selective breeding to help improve sesame pods. The goal is to have pods that can be easily picked by machine, eliminating time-consuming hand picking and helping to increasing the farmer’s work yield.

According to Professor Peleg, the bigger, easier to pick seed pods can help meet the increased need for the nutritious seeds and help the Israeli economy.

“The increase in global demand for sesame products as a health food has turned this highly domestic consumption item into an important export commodity for Israel,” Peleg explained.

He also said that in addition to growing bigger pods, he also hopes to create more weather-proof strains that can survive harsh conditions and still produce.

“Our goal is to discover novel genes and traits that will be used as bases for future breeding programs to increase productivity under stressful conditions,” the researcher said.

Ultimately Peleg’s resistant sesame crops — which require little water to thrive — can also be planted in drought-ridden areas, providing a valuable protein source in regions where heat and water shortages threaten food supplies.

According to the United Nations, Food and Agricultural Organization, developing and cultivating such drought-resistant food sources will be essential to helping humans survive in increasingly water-insecure and populated planet in the years to come.