As Goes Israel, So Goes the Planet: A Glimpse of Our Future

A tiny nation overcomes huge odds and in the process becomes the world’s ag lab, as well as its coal-mine canary.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

During a press conference in April, former Israeli agriculture minister Yair Shamir, explained to visiting journalists: “Understand, that before Jews moved to Israel, they could not own land. There were laws preventing this in most countries. As a result, they did not know much about agriculture, how to raise food.”

It made for a steep learning curve, said Shamir, one made all the worse because of the climate in the rocky, often arid land that was then called Palestine. Yet, today, those involved in Israeli agriculture claim such difficulties were major factors in the country’s success in raising that food.

Uri Yermiyahu

Uri Yermiyahu

“Well, think about it,” says Uri Yermiyahu, Ph.D., a water and soil researcher, and the manager of Israel’s Gilat Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Agricultural Research. “Many years ago people came here, and the only thing that they have is desert, a lack of water. People come from different countries in Europe, very clever, educated, but without any resources.

“So, they started to think, ‘What can we do?’ And in a very short time … they found the solutions, how to grow and how to make agriculture in the worst conditions you can imagine.”

As Yermiyahu, explains, “There’s almost no rain. We also have very poor soil. It’s the worst climate you can think of. Okay, you can have worse, maybe, but still it’s not a very good climate. And you want to produce food for your people. And they think how they can do it.”

Farming communities were formed, research was performed and innovations were developed. Perhaps, what seemed like overwhelming odds were what motivated these early pioneers. Another factor: “They had to do these things. For many, there was nowhere else to go [after Israel],” says Yermiyahu.

Research “All the Time”

The Israelis have accomplished much in the short history of their country. By plenty of measures, their contribution in many areas seems outsized for such a small nation of 8-plus million residents.

Agree with their methods or not, the Israelis have certainly established themselves militarily. In entrepreneurial, high-tech circles, they’ve earned the moniker “Start-Up Nation” for contributions to a host of computer, Internet and medical advancements. And in agriculture, farmers and researchers here get credit for things like drip irrigation, “fertigation” and various cultivars that can withstand the region’s harsh climate.

As it is elsewhere, however, the obstacles have not all been overcome. According to Yermiyahu, it’s quite the contrary for agriculture.

“In agriculture, every day you have different problems, different diseases,” says Yermiyahu, who notes that 70 to 80% of Israeli agricultural research occurs at the Agricultural Research Organization (ARO), the largely government-funded consortium under which the Gilat research center operates. “The diseases cross borders. The climate affects the diseases you have and the growth.

“In order to be a good farmer, you need to be in the situation that you can solve problems all the time … and this is the key to good agriculture—to have research all the time.”

Israel: Perhaps the Perfect Ag Lab

As in most developed and many developing countries, Israel has a variety of public and private agricultural research organizations. However, the country itself may be the world’s most ready-made agricultural lab.

Leah Tsror, in her potato plots at Gilat Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Agricultural Research.

Leah Tsror, in her potato plots at Gilat Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Agricultural Research.

Consider, that the country’s relative warmth allows many Israeli farmers to grow crops year-round … and disease to sometimes flourish without the halting influence of cold weather.

Then, too, “Israel is quite small,” explains Leah Tsror, Ph.D., who performs plant pathology and weed research at the Gilat research center. “We’re limited by our available plots,” which, she explains, “can allow pathogens to spread rapidly.”

For instance, she points to work she and a colleague have performed to better understand how some pathogens are wind borne and able to affect virgin soils. That’s of particular concern in the Israeli desert where agriculture is expected to expand to areas never before cultivated.

However, such proximity, she notes, also aids scientists and farmers in reacting swiftly with diagnosis and treatment, and that closeness helps create connections. “In Israel, the relationship between the researcher and the end user, the farmer, is very, very strong. Some of our experiments are done with the farmers in their own plots and the exchange of information is lateral,” or two-way, says Tsror. That relationship with producers, she says, is critical.

The Great Race

Tsror and Yermiyahu, as well as other researchers interviewed for this series, feel that change is coming faster as the world seems to get smaller, with more exchange of goods across great distances. Both, too, say climate change is affecting the spread of disease, either by the creation of new pathogens, or by making them more adaptive and aggressive.

Hagai Yasour

Hagai Yasour

Another Gilat researcher, Hagai Yasour, Ph.D., also adds that large tracts of land planted with the same crop increase the chances for diseases to spread. “There is a balance between a species in the wild or in the natural environment. But whenever you put, say, 30,000 tomato plants or pepper plants in the field, very uniform, everything from one cultivar,” he says, the rapid spread of disease is made all the easier. “Whenever there is some changing in the bacteria or in the virus or in the disease,” Yasour continues, “it’s going to take and spread very fast.”

Understand, Yasour isn’t, at least not in this discussion, so much stating his opposition to such monoculture farming, as he is describing the problem to which he and others are helping to find solutions. “It’s a race,” he says, “between the plants, plant breeder and the virus all the time.”

Much of Yasour’s research involves the creation of new cultivars that can resist disease, work that he says is all the more complicated by Israel’s exporting a large percentage of its fruits and vegetables to European Union countries that already or may soon ban GMO crops. “There are some people from the field who say that there is, basically, a quite easy solution to prevent this virus problem with GMOs.” But, because of the ban, he says, many Israeli researchers are turning their attention to non-GMO cultivars, which typically take longer to develop and test.

Yasour’s main focuses is on abiotic stress of vegetable crops caused by high temperatures, which, he says, is “the most limiting factor in producing vegetables, even more than in water quality.” It’s also research that he says will increase in relevance, since the climate is predicted to continue changing with temperatures increasing globally. It’s also applicable to the growing of crops in greenhouses and net houses, as they can increase temperatures to levels higher than what is optimum for many current cultivars.

According to Yasour, greenhouses and other similar structures offer an environment that protects crops from yield-killing pathogens, while also reducing the amount of man-made chemicals being used. Yet, whether for raising crops inside or outside, he says we’ve not yet solved the riddle of how high temperatures adversely affect a plant’s ability to grow and produce.

According to Tsror, such research has implications beyond Israel’s borders, since Israel’s hot, dry climate offers a look into the future for what could happen in regions that are, for now, cooler and wetter. That means, says Tsror, whose work has focused most recently on potatoes, “if global warming will continue, the studies that we are doing here will impact directly what is being done in, for instance, Europe.”

“We are far away from a solution,” says Yasour. “There is no silver bullet, and I think that we might even put more effort [into it], because … consumers want healthier fruits…. So, he continues, “we will need to produce better cultivars with better nutrition values. We still have quite a lot of work to do.”

As Goes Israel, So Goes the Rest of the World

Not that Israel is the world’s trendsetter, although this so-called “Start-Up Nation,” has set the course for change in many areas of technology. More and more, though, this tiny spot on the globe offers the rest of humanity a peak at its future.

Ian Beiersdorf, a researcher from Peoria, Illinois, conducts experiments at Gilat determining the impact of different levels of salinity on olive trees.

Ian Beiersdorf, a researcher from Peoria, Illinois, conducts experiments at Gilat determining the impact of different levels of salinity on olive trees.

From one perspective, it’s bleak: Natural freshwater assets are far less than what are needed by the people who live there; the population is expected to continue growing, perhaps boom if some of the country’s leaders are able to attract the legions of people they hope will immigrate to this relatively small nation; and the region’s denizens continue to battle for land and resources they believe are theirs.

Looked at from the perspective of what’s been overcome, however, there is hope—a theme that’s run throughout this series of articles. Consider that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while far from resolved, is more of a cold war for the moment, and that Israel has signed peace treaties with previous enemies Jordan and Egypt. As stated by numerous Israelis, there is no longer a water crisis in the country, despite frequent droughts and a growing population, which, by the way, is being fed in large part by domestic agricultural production, fueled by cutting-edge technological innovation and world-leading efficient practices.

All this in a country whose residents have proven they can adapt. Says, Yermiyahu: “If you have people that want to improve themselves, they find solutions. We found the solution. So, this is all the story.”

For More Information

Gilat Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Agricultural Research

Agricultural Research Organization, Volcani Center

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>