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Agriculture in Israel:
Coping with Population Growth

by Jon Fedler
(Updated September 2011)


Agriculture: Table of Contents | Kibbutz Movement | Agricultural R&D


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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 enormously.

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 local market.

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 is used.

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.

Irrigation

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 the region.

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.

Mechanization and Agrotechnology

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.

Government Involvement

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 crops.

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 assignments.

High-Tech Farming

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 Mexican growers.

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

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.

Vegetables

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 "Desert Sweet."

Field Crops

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 irrigated.

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 Farming

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 equipment.

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 world standards.

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 low-fat meat.

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.

Aquaculture

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 fodder.

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.

Floriculture

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 hemisphere.

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. 


Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry

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