How technology and research have transformed farming in Israel

28th Jun, 2017

To farmers in Africa, farming is about the rains. Without rain there is no farming. But thousands of kilometres away in this middle-eastern country, rain means little to farmers who have appropriately adapted to the extremely harsh climatic conditions to become one of the most competitive food producers globally

A drive through the Negev desert to the southern parts of Israel captures the unimaginable gains of technology in farming. Despite the sun-baked deserts plains, farmers here still manage to feed thousands across Israel and abroad from the tiny farms in the Kibbutz and Moshavs that dot the large swatches of land overlooking the Dead Sea on the border with Jordan.

Israel’s yearly rainfall comes within a period of three months and it is also poorly distributed leading to frequent drought spells and extreme water scarcity—compared to many countries in Africa that enjoy up to three seasons of average to enhanced rainfall. Israel mainly receives rainfall between December and February with large swathes of land especially under the Negev receiving below 100 millimeters of precipitation annually.

Desert land

The consequences of these climatic conditions are dire. Out of the country’s total land mass of 22,000 square kilometres, some 13,000 square kilometres are under desert and only 437,000 hectares is arable but that hasn’t dampened Israel’s agricultural dream. Latest data shows that the country registered $2.1billion in agricultural output in 2014.

With just three main sources of fresh water—the Sea of Galilee, the Coastal and Mountain aquifers – Israel has relied on water conservation and smart farming techniques to counter the climatic challenges it faces. Interestingly, 80 percent of these water sources are found in the north yet up to 65 percent of the irrigable land lies in the southern part of the country—which means the water has to be pumped and piped over long distances of about 300 kilometers to satisfy the scarcity areas.

The high saline water of the Mediterranean Sea is also not a deterrent either. The country has gone big in reclaiming sea water for farming through desalination. By 2015, there were five large scale sea-water desalination plants with a capacity of 600 million cubic meters a year.

One key strategy adopted by Israel is the economic use of water through drip irrigation which ensures each plant only gets the exact amount of water it requires to avoid wastage.

“This ensures optimal supply of plant needs” the Agriculture and Rural Development ministry says in its update for 2016.

Official data shows that an average 162,000 ha of land in Israel is irrigated with each plant utilising about 95 per cent of the drip-irrigated water.

The efficient use of water, however, doesn’t just end with drip irrigation. The nation also lays huge emphasis on recycling of waste water. In Israel, farmers are obliged to exchange fresh water quotas with urban effluents.

“More than 75 percent of reclaimed water is used. The plan is to reclaim most of the sewage” the agriculture ministry says.

Automated agriculture

Israel has also gone big on automated agriculture to boost efficiency and cut labour-related costs. The mechanisation of farming has hugely reflected on the labour size and productivity.

With a total labour force of 3.6 million in Israel, only 5.7 per cent is employed in agriculture, signaling the extent of technology in the country’s farming sector. Statistics by the country’s Agriculture ministry show that just 1.1 percent of the Israeli labour force is directly involved in agricultural production while 4.6 percent are engaged in the supporting industries.

The use of mechanisation and automation has shown itself in the efficiency levels of farming in Israel. In the 1950s, one farmer in Israel fed about 15 people but that climbed to an average 111 people in 2014 as technology improved. Comparatively, each farmer in developing countries fed about two to 20 people as at 2010 while in developed nations 90-120 people were fed by a single farmer.

These successes are largely linked to comprehensive Research and Development on key areas such as water management and overall crop husbandry. For instance, Israel has developed thermal imaging technology that it uses to monitor agriculture water systems.

“Thermal imaging exposes differences in water status of plants which cannot be detected visually” the Agriculture ministry says.

The results of imaging are then used to map irrigation requirements of plants so that only those in need of water are irrigated to avoid wastage.

The use of this range of technology has helped Israel grow productivity in key areas such as a dairy farming, post-harvest management and poultry faming. The country for example boasts of the highest yielding dairy production.

The country’s annual average milk production per cow stands at an average 11,667 kg per cow—the highest in the world. The dairy sector is run on zero-grazing and the herds from the dairy herds also supply about 43 percent of the country fresh red meat. The dairy units are highly automated to maximise output from the herds.

“Robot milking stations allows different milking frequencies and individual concentrate feeding” the ministry further says.

The experience of farming in Israel offers hope of improving agriculture through collaborative work between researchers, farmers and technology. Emphasis must be accorded to key areas including irrigation and post-harvest storage and use of appropriate seeds.

Israel for example has adopted an innovative way of dealing with the menace of post-harvest losses that hurt farmers in most developing countries. The country has developed hermetic plastic structures for long-term storage of 5-15,000 tonnes of cereals. The country has also established the Israel Gene Bank (IGB) to preserve its flora from threats of distinction.

The cooperative farming model in Israel has provided a major lift for smallholder farmers who pool efforts on key areas such as marketing. This helps in areas contract marketing, such that they are able to supply produce to buyers year-round and lock out brokers who take advantage of vulnerable individual famers to manipulate earnings.


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