Coping with Population Growth
by Jon Fedler
(Updated September 2011)
By the year 2020, Israel's population
is expected to grow by 42 percent, to 8.5 million. This will cause huge
increases in demand for agricultural produce and products; but urban use of
land and water will also increase
In 2020 only half the amount of fresh
water allocated to agriculture today (around 700 million cubic meters a year) will be available for this
purpose and the amount of suitable land available for farming (360,000
hectares) will be 18 percent less than at present.
Part of the increased demand -
notably for field crops (such as cereals, oilseeds and sugar) and for milk
products, fish and beef - will have to be met by increased imports.
Nevertheless a substantial part of that growing demand will have to come from
increased domestic production. Sweeping changes will be required, such as a
33% increase in the labor force and a reduction in irrigated field crops, such
as cotton, to make water available for growing fruit and vegetables for the
The above is based on a study by the
Ministry of Agriculture, which forecasts that despite its handicaps Israel
will be able, by 2020, to increase production of agricultural goods by 48
percent over 1993 figures, averaging a growth of 1.5 percent per annum in real
terms. This is certainly consistent with recent developments. Except for a
brief period of uneven growth in the second half of the 1980s, agricultural
output has grown consistently since 1948.
Despite the decline in its importance
relative to other economic branches, agriculture has been growing in absolute
terms and still plays an important part in Israel's economy, representing
today some 2.0 percent of the Gross Domestic Product and about 3.5 percent of
exports. Agricultural inputs produced in Israel are valued today at over $2
billion, of which 70% are exported.
Agriculture is of major national
importance; in certain areas, such as the Arava and the Jordan Valley, it
provides the sole means of livelihood for the population. In 1996
approximately 73,500 people were involved in farming, constituting about 3.0
percent of the country's workforce.
In monetary terms, Israel produces
almost 70% of all its food requirements. It imports much of its grain,
oilseeds, meat and fish, and its the sugar, coffee and cocoa. However, these
imports are offset by exports of agricultural produce valued at around $800
million and $600 million worth of processed foods per annum. Today, just under
a quarter of the income of Israel's farmers derives from the export of fresh
produce, including items such as flowers, avocados, out-of-season vegetables
and certain exotic fruits grown for export. In 1996 some 140,000 tons of fruit
and vegetables - 14 percent of the entire crop - were sold to factories for
processing and export.
This is a far cry from the situation
a century ago. When Jews began resettling their historic homeland in the late
19th century, their first efforts were directed towards reclaiming the mostly
semi-arid land, much of which was rendered untillable by deforestation, soil
erosion and neglect. Rocky fields were cleared and terraces built in the hilly
regions; swampland was drained, and systematic reforestation begun; soil
erosion was counteracted, and salty land washed to reduce soil salinity.
Since Israel attained its
independence in 1948, the total area under cultivation has increased from
165,000 ha. to some 435,000 ha. and the number of agricultural communities has
grown from 400 to 900 (including 136 Arab villages). During the same period,
agricultural production has expanded 16-fold, more than three times the rate
of the population growth.
Israel's varied climatic,
topographical and soil conditions (from sub-tropical to arid, from 400 meters
below sea level to 1000 meters above and from sand dunes to heavy alluvial
soils) made it possible to grow a wide range of agricultural produce. The
success of the country's agriculture stems from the determination and
ingenuity of farmers and scientists who have dedicated themselves to
developing a flourishing agriculture in a country which is more than half
desert, thus demonstrating that the real value of land is a function of how it
Research & Development
The fact that agricultural production
continued to grow despite severe water and land limitations was no accident.
It was the result of another unique Israeli phenomenon: a close and ongoing
cooperation between researchers, extension workers, farmers and
agriculture-related services and industries. Continuous, application-oriented
research and development (R&D) has been carried out in the country since
the beginning of the century. The agricultural sector today is based almost
entirely on science-linked technology, with government agencies, academic
institutions, industry and cooperative bodies working together to seek
solutions to problems and meet new challenges. Dealing with subjects ranging
from plant genetics and blight control to arid-zone cultivation, lsrael's
agricultural R&D has developed science-based technologies which have
dramatically enhanced the quantity and quality of the country's produce. The
key to this success lies in the two-way flow of information between research
personnel and farmers. Through a network of extension services (and active
farmers' involvement in all R&D stages), problems in the field are brought
directly to the researcher for solutions, and scientific results are quickly
transmitted to the field for trial, adaptation and implementation.
The drive to achieve maximum yields
and crop quality has led to new plant varieties, to breeding of improved
animal species and to a wide range of innovations in irrigation and
fertigation, machinery, automation, chemicals, cultivation and harvesting.
Many of these innovations are also exported.
Near the Desert Plant Research
Station of Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva is a farm cultivated over
2,000 years ago by the earliest desert farmers, the Nabateans. Their
agricultural methods were astonishingly sophisticated. By building terraces
and clearing the soil of stones, every drop of runoff water was collected and
then diverted to the lower-lying fields and orchards.
The methods have changed, but saving
water and making optimal use of scarce land still characterizes agriculture in
Water saving has been the farmers'
leitmotif since the State of Israel was founded in 1948. The country has ten
major companies producing irrigation and filtration equipment, all
internationally active. In no other field of agricultural technology has
Israel so excelled.
In terms of annual rainfall, 60% of
the country may be defined as arid or semi-arid. Rain falls only between
November and April, with uneven distribution of yearly precipitation, ranging
from 28 inches (70 cm.) in the north to less than two inches (five cm.) in the
south. Annual renewable water resources amount to some 1.6 billion cu.m.,
about 75 percent of which is used for agriculture. Of the latter, two thirds
is potable - a share which is likely to decrease substantially in the coming
years as more sewage treatment plants come on line.
In the past 30 years agricultural
output has increased almost fivefold* with hardly any increase in the amount
of water used. This reflects technological advances of different types - water
efficiency went up by about 30% and crops with higher yields and market-value
were introduced. To reduce water consumption for agriculture, advanced
water-saving techniques (notably the drip system) were applied, which direct
the water flow straight to the root zone of plants. Also, computerized
irrigation systems were used and greenhouse agriculture was significantly
expanded. Israeli engineers and agriculturalists created the revolutionary
drip irrigation system, which has reduced water consumption by 50-70 percent
compared with gravity irrigation, and by 10-20% compared to sprinkler
irrigation. At present, scientists are testing the first generation of
ultra-low application rate "minute irrigation" drip emitters for
soil-less media in greenhouses, emitters with 100-200 cc/h flow rates.
Considered even more advanced than the drip system, they will create optimal
air-water relationships in the plants' root zone and, being more efficient,
save yet more water. Micro-spraying and micro-sprinkling irrigation
accessories have also been developed, mainly for use in orchards, where each
tree is irrigated by its individual sprayer.
To overcome regional imbalances in
water availability, most of the country's freshwater sources have been joined
in the National Water Carrier, an integrated network of pumping stations,
reservoirs, canals and pipelines which transfers water from the north, where
most of the sources are, to the agricultural areas of the semi-arid south. As
a result, the amount of irrigated farmland has increased from 30,000 ha. in
1948 to some 186,400 ha. today.
In order to lower costs, increase
yields, improve quality and save manpower, innovative agricultural machinery
and electronic equipment have been locally designed and manufactured, and are
widely used. Intensive experimentation on the drawing board and in the field
has resulted, inter alia, in the development of heavy-duty soil preparation
machinery; advanced tillage, planting, harvesting and transplanting equipment
adaptable to intensive farming; and diverse irrigation systems, ranging from
sprinklers to computerized drip irrigation. Automated milking and dairy herd
management systems and egg-collecting equipment, computerized feeding systems
and production-recording computers have been introduced, as well as machinery
for the grading, packing, storing and transporting of produce.
Locally-developed agrotechnologies include computerized fertigation, which
injects fertilizers through the irrigation system, and advanced temperature
and humidity control methods, which provide healthy environments for poultry,
flowers, out-of-season vegetables and the like.
The Ministry of Agriculture supports
and supervises the activities of the country's agricultural sector, including
maintenance of high standards for plant and animal health, promotion of
agricultural planning, extension, research and marketing. For many years,
agriculture was tightly controlled, with the allocation of production and
water quotas for each crop. At present, only quotas for milk and some control
of eggs, broilers and potatoes are in effect.
Ongoing programs to increase the
country's water potential involve rainfall enhancement through cloud seeding,
desalination of brackish water and sewage recycling. The search for more water
has recently led to exploitation of the huge underground reservoir of brackish
water in the Negev desert, which has been found suitable for growing specific
Supervision of the country's water
supply includes determining water quotas, progressive prices, fully
controlling groundwater pumping and initiating supply-enhancing projects. A
ten-year program has been introduced recently, which proposes a cut in the
supply of improved water for agriculture; treatment of all urban waste-water;
expanded utilization of desalinated brackish water; a reduction of high
water-consuming crops; storing of flood waters; development of
capital-intensive greenhouses; and massive desalination of sea water.
Growing Crops in the Desert
Since 1948, the sparsely populated
desert area between Be'er Sheva and Eilat has played an important role in
agricultural production. More than 40 percent of the country's vegetables and
field crops are grown in the Arava and Negev and 90 percent of the melons
exported come from the Arava.
Today, partly because of Jewish
Agency and Government programs to promote settlement, and partly because the
supply of farmland in the country's densely populated central region is
shrinking (only 20 percent of the country's total land area of 22,000 sq. km
is arable, and a growing share is used for housing), the importance of the
southern Negev and Arava for farming is increasing. In the process, the
pattern of farming in the desert is also undergoing change, with new varieties
of crops suited to the region's conditions being developed and introduced,
along with animal husbandry, hitherto confined to more northern areas.
The common advantages of the two
regions are their long hours of sunshine and relatively high temperatures, as
well as the fact that land is relatively cheap and abundant and adequate water
(saline or recycled) is available. The further south one goes, the earlier
crops ripen. This makes it possible to grow for export to Europe during the
winter months - October through March - when prices are highest, with less
expenditure of energy than required elsewhere.
Until the 1990s, the accent was on
field crops, vegetables, fruit and dates. These branches continue to expand in
the Negev and Arava, and in addition giant citrus groves (10,000 acres), have
been planted by industrial companies in the northern Negev. Attempts to expand
the growing of flowers, grapes for wine, olives for oil, cattle for meat,
ostriches and fish are now taking off.
The new wave of 'greening of the
desert' has been encouraging. In the Negev, improved climatic conditions and
cultivation of new citrus varieties have resulted in yields 50-100 percent
higher than those in the north. Olive plantations irrigated by brackish water
have achieved per-acre oil yields that are six times higher than in
traditional rainfed groves elsewhere in the country. Within three years the
Negev/Arava fish farmers have achieved production of around 350 tons a year
and output is expected to reach 2,000 tons by the year 2,000. At Kadesh
Barnea, a small moshav (cooperative farm settlement) on the Egyptian border,
one can get a foretaste of what Israeli desert farming in the 21st century
will look like. The moshav's beef cattle - the first in the Negev - are fed
fodder grown with brackish water recycled from 'bubbles' - covered tanks for
intensive fish cultivation. Similarly, at Kibbutz Revivim water from fish
tanks nourishes alfalfa for ostriches. Desert agriculture is already playing
an indispensable role in Israel's economy.
Israel tries to learn from other
countries: in recent years it has introduced a large range of arid land plants
from Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas, and is trying them out under
local conditions, occasionally adapting and commercializing them. Know-how on
desert growing has become a focus for regional and international cooperation.
Since the late 1950s, Israel has been
sharing its agricultural expertise with scores of countries. MASHAV, the
Center for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is
active in Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, Eastern Europe and Latin
America; and it is broadening its cooperation programs with a growing number
of countries in the Middle East.
Agricultural projects and research
collaboration constitute about half of Israel's international cooperation
programs. Emphasis is placed on training courses in agricultural subjects,
with some 1,400 participants from over 80 countries attending specialized
farming courses in Israel every year and thousands of trainees receiving
on-the-spot training in their own countries. Since 1958, thousands of Israeli
agricultural experts have been sent abroad on long- and short-term
Economists discussing the country's
farming choices sometimes draw an analogy between a kilogram of exported
tomatoes, which might fetch around five dollars, and a kilo of hybrid tomato
seeds, which today may be selling abroad for $7,000. High-tech farming, it is
suggested, is the only way to survive. Indeed, market forces at home and
abroad, and a scarcity of land, labor and water are forcing major changes on
Israeli agriculture. Increasingly, there is a shift from extensively-farmed,
mass-produced crops to intensive growing of niche products based on scientific
and technological R&D, such as hybrid, virus-resistant tomatoes or
tissue-culture propagated banana-tree saplings. The country's farmers face
increasing competition. On the one hand, ties with the Palestinian Authority
have caused an influx of vegetables and poultry, depressing prices. On the
other hand, readjustment of world trade patterns in the wake of the GATT
agreement has led - for the first time in Israel's history - to imports of
fresh and processed produce from Europe and the US. On the export side,
Israeli products like citrus and flowers face stiff competition from other
producers in the Mediterranean region and farther afield, while avocados, one
of the largest exports, have been facing cut-throat competition in Europe from
As in other countries, Israeli
agriculture has been forced to employ fewer and fewer people. The work force
shrank almost 40 percent between 1960 (121,000) and 1996 (73,500). However,
these persons are producing and exporting more. In the early 1950s one
full-time agricultural employee fed 17 people. In 1994 one full-time worker
produced food for 90 persons.
Most of Israel's agriculture is
organized on cooperative principles which evolved in the country during the
first decades of the 20th century. Motivated by both ideology and
circumstances, the early pioneers set up two unique forms of agricultural
settlements: the kibbutz, a collective community in which the means of
production are communally owned and each member's work benefits all; and the
moshav, a cooperative village where each family maintains its own household
and works its own land, while purchasing and marketing are conducted
cooperatively. Both provided a means to realize the pioneers' dream of rural
communities based on social equality, cooperation and mutual aid. Their output
today comprises the lion's share of the country's fresh produce, as well as
many processed food products, both for the domestic market and for export, and
almost all meat, poultry and fish.
Agriculture - by Branches
Fruit accounted for $280 million of
Israel's 1997 agricultural exports, with citrus providing two thirds, despite
a small drop in its sales. Israel's varied climatic, topographical and soil
conditions have made it possible to grow a wide range of fruit. Thus the fruit
sector is able to offer juicy citrus, creamy avocados, tangy kiwis and litchi,
aromatic guavas and succulent mangoes from the orchards of the coastal plain,
sweet bananas and honey-rich dates from subtropical areas; and crisp apples,
tasty pears and plump cherries ripened in the chilly air of the northern
hills. The varied climate also enables fruit to be picked out of season, or at
the beginning or end of a season, prolonging its appearance on the shelves.
The cultivation of vineyards, first
promoted as a commercial enterprise at the beginning of the century, has been
expanded to include special varieties of grapes for making a wide range of
prize-winning red and white wines. These include grapes grown with saline
water in desert conditions - a worldwide first.
Citrus, the country's oldest export
sector, continues to be a leading export product with hundreds of thousands of
tons of oranges, pink and white grapefruits, lemons, pomelos and several
varieties of easy-peeling tangerines, as well as concentrates, juices and
other products, shipped abroad annually.
Efforts are now being directed to the
development of new citrus varieties that have a smaller seed content, a longer
shelf life, a pleasant appearance and a long marketing season.
Growing vegetables has become an art
in Israel - based on choosing the right hybrid varieties, fertilizers and
irrigation methods, selecting greenhouse covers designed for specific crops
and employing innovative post-harvest treatments. Vegetables account for about
17 percent of Israel's total agricultural production. In 1996, the country's
farmers produced some 1.7 million tons, of which about 150,000 tons were
exported; large quantities of processed vegetables are also exported.
Technologically advanced methods are
employed, including soil-less greenhouses with climate control systems. Some
1800 hectares of vegetables are grown in greenhouses. While tomatoes growing
in the open field reach yields of up to 80 tons per hectare, an average
200-300 tons can be grown in greenhouses under controlled climatic conditions.
Israel exploits the sunshine and high temperatures to grow high quality
vegetables during the competitors' off-seasons.
In the last few years varieties of
some crops, notably tomatoes and melons, have been adapted for growth in the
desert with saline water irrigation. These are marketed under the brand name
With scarce water, Israel's field
crop farmers have been concentrating on new varieties that produce the same or
higher yields, with less or no irrigation. Moreover, that irrigation
increasingly consists of recycled wastewater.
Some 220,000 hectares are devoted to
field crops in Israel. Of these, 160,000 ha. are rain-fed winter crops such as
wheat for grain and silage, hay, legumes for seeds and safflower for oil. The
remainder is planted with summer crops such as cotton, sunflowers, chickpeas,
green peas, beans, corn, groundnuts and watermelon for seeds, mostly
The lion's share of the 80,000 ha. of
wheat is devoted to growing grain, while some 7000 ha. are for silage.
Almost the entire cotton crop of
28,500 ha. is drip irrigated, using mainly recycled wastewater. Cotton yields
per unit of land are currently the highest in the world, averaging 5.5 tons
per ha. of seed cotton for the Acala variety (with 1.8 tons of fiber) and 5
tons per ha. of seed cotton for the Pima variety (with 1.6 tons of fiber). The
cotton sector is completely mechanized and each worker produces $100,000 worth
of cotton annually.
Dairy and beef herds account for over
17 percent of the country's total agricultural production. Israel has for
several years held the world record for milk production - 10,200 kilograms of
3.3 percent butterfat milk per cow in 1997, 10,080 in 1996. This is no
accident, but reflects a number of complementary steps, each aimed at
achieving maximum efficiency: GA careful breeding of cows that can cope with
Israel's hot climate. The dairy herd consists entirely of Israel-Holsteins, a
high-yielding, disease-resistant breed, developed through careful selection
procedures. Breeding, based on computerized production data and genetic
factors, is by artificial insemination; and since Israel has almost no grazing
land, most of the herd's nutrition is based on a total-nutrient barn-fed feed
mix. GFeeding and milking the dairy herds by computerized programs to
determine feed ration composition, according to stage of growth and milking,
and yield. Thus, for example, the farmer can determine the correct balance for
a milk-yielding or a dry cow during the gestation period, or develop a
suitable diet for young calves. In addition, automated, computerized
management systems have been developed that monitor the individual cow's milk
output per milking, mastitis infection warning and heat detection through
counting the number of steps a cow takes. Computerized climate control systems
for the dairy parlor.
The result is that Israeli dairy
know-how, equipment and experience are sought after worldwide. Sperm from
locally-proven bulls are in considerable demand abroad. Other dairy-related
exports include heifers; advanced, computerized milking and feeding systems;
cooling systems for dairies in hot countries; mini-dairies for milk
processing; systems to recycle organic waste into cattle feed; and recycling
systems for cattle manure. All this is provided by Israeli government
agencies, consultancy firms and partnerships in international project
development and, of course, the companies that produce the inputs and
The sector supplies all of the
country's dairy requirements. A surplus of butterfat is used for producing a
wide variety of dairy products. Production is regulated by a strict policy of
planning and quotas.
The sheep and goat milk sectors have
developed significantly in recent years, with a growing part of the cheeses
produced earmarked for export.
Poultry and Beef
Several years ago the USDA
acknowledged the quality and standards of Israeli poultry, and in 1997
veterinary officials of the European Union granted Israel "associate
member status" for poultry imports and exports. This means, de facto,
that Israel's breeding methods, the level of veterinary services, veterinary
legislation and independent supervision systems are regarded as being up to
Poultry-raising , almost equally
divided between broiler chickens and turkeys, is a major component of Israel's
agriculture. Meat production doubled, to 340,000 tons, between 1976 and 1996
and today its processed products are also an important industry. At home, per
capita consumption both of eggs and poultry is among the highest in the world.
This is reflected not just in a large and well-organized network of breeders
and producers but in the development, by local companies, of specialized
equipment for the poultry industry.
Breeders have concentrated on
developing poultry breeds which are both heat- and disease-resistant. The
breeds are also characterized by a rapid growth rate, high egg production and
Eggs account for some 21 percent of
the country's total poultry output. Average egg production is 280 per layer.
Annual meat yield per square meter of broiler house, over the course of five
growing cycles, now reaches 150 kg. Breeding and broiler farms, as well as
meat processing, are fully automated.
Israel is the world's largest
per-capita consumer of turkey meat and the industry represents 25 percent of
total meat output. A high level of automation, strict hygienic conditions and
development of disease-resistant breeds contribute to high meat production. A
wide variety of turkey products is exported, mainly to Western Europe.
At 83,000 tons in 1996 (half of it
imported), Israel's consumption of beef was only a quarter of its consumption
of poultry products (344,000 tons). High poultry and low beef consumption are
partly habit, partly price dictated. Pasture is a limiting factor in
production, though not to consumption. Efforts are being made to expand
grazing areas by improving existing pastures and introducing different grasses
and new grazing techniques.
Israel imports about two-thirds of
the fish it consumes. Demand at home is steadily rising: from 11.7 kilograms
in 1994 to 12.9 kgs. in 1996, a rise of 10%. Growing demand - both local and
worldwide - is prompting Israel to step up fish production, especially in the
arid southern part of the country. In the process new, intensive breeding
systems, which could prove to be of global relevance, are being developed.
Activities are in three focal points:
fish growing, including tilapia, mullet, carp, trout, bass and silver carp, in
artificial ponds located mainly in northern Israel; salt water fish, including
bass and sea-bream, raised in floating cages in the Mediterranean Sea; and
fresh-water fishing in the Sea of Galilee.
One of the main pond methods
currently being developed and rapidly increasing in volume is the use of
covered ponds fed by oxygenation, with water passing to and from the ponds via
a reservoir/bio-filter. Such systems have been yielding production increases
as high as 400%, from 0.5 kg. per cu. meter in an open pond to 20 kg. and more
in a covered tank.
Equally impressive yields have been
achieved throughout the arid Negev and Arava region using covered 'bubble' or
'tent' systems. The warm, geothermal, saline water is recycled from the fish
ponds to irrigate a variety of crops, from greenhouse tomatoes to cattle
In light of the initial commercial
successes, it appears that by promoting fish farming in the south using
geothermal water sources, local production may be dramatically increased, thus
lowering the current high demand for imported fish.
The same applies to a new system of
cages for offshore mariculture, currently being tested off Israel's
Mediterranean coast. The new design enables fish farms to be taken farther
offshore, lessening coastal pollution, and the cages can be placed lower in
the sea during storms, raising fish survival rates and yields.
Individual farms, averaging less than
a hectare, are small by international standards, but highly profitable. The
expertise of the farmers contributes to the high quality and wide variety of
flowers (over 100). These include cut flowers such as roses, gypsophila,
carnations, solidago, limonium, gerbera, anemone and ornamental plants. New,
acclimatized varieties introduced from other countries account for about 50
percent of Israel's flower exports. These varieties include "summer
flowers" from Europe, acclimatized so that they can be picked and
exported during Europe's winter season and flowers indigenous to the southern
Although the number of flower growers
has decreased by some 50 percent in recent years (from 5,000 to 2,700),
production has risen steadily to around 1.4 billion flowers a year. This is
due to technological advances and an intensive system of production. About
half of all the flowers are grown in advanced, computerized greenhouses and
some 12 percent under netting. The latest innovation is the setting up of the
first of several "hothouse parks", where farmers grow flowers in
rented greenhouses with all infrastructure and services supplied.
Today, most flowers are sold by the
individual growers directly to buyers in the flower auctions of the
Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere. Handling and shipping by Agrexco,
the joint government-growers export company, which has special air and sea
terminals in Israel and in Europe, ensures quality and timely arrival at the
markets. The Flower Production and Marketing Board provides each grower with
daily results of sales. Some of the more innovative growers are connected
on-line with the auctions and follow transactions in real time.
Ornamental plants are a rapidly
growing industry. Over $50 million worth of scores of different ornamental
plants, either as rooted or un-rooted cuttings, or in pots in various stages
of growth, are exported worldwide, but predominantly to Europe. Most of these
plants serve as the starting materials for European house- and garden plant
nurseries, who may gain a season or even a year (and a lot of energy) by
having the initial stages of growth carried out in Israel's warmer climate.
Much of this industry is based on person-to-person contractual arrangements.
Once a distant second to citrus,
export of flowers and ornamental plants now holds first place. With continuing
R&D investment, export sales are likely to continue growing.