Agriculture in Israel

Agriculture In Israel: History and Current Agriculture Technologies

For anyone who has ever been to Israel or anywhere in the near Middle East, one may quickly imagine the numerous difficulties encountered to sustain life there. It is an exceptionally arid landscape, with desert-like conditions towards the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Gulf of Aqaba. Much of the topography and vegetation reflect the lack of rainfall, with more fertile soil mostly in the north of Israel, towards Galilee’s sea.

Despite this, Israel has managed to flourish in over 70 years of independence, in no small part due to its incredible investment in agriculture. Critical to Israel’s agricultural prowess has been developing various agricultural technology that has allowed Israeli farmers to surmount the adverse conditions farming in Israel poses.

The History of Agriculture in Israel

The chief dilemma that farmers faced when beginning to farm in Israel was the limited availability of arable or fertile land in Israel. Only 20% of Israel’s land is good for farming in that it has fertile soil and access to reliable water supplies.

Most of this quality land is located in the Jordan Valley, near the sea of Galilee, or in the center of Israel. Otherwise, Israel’s land ranges from the arid, sandy coastline near the Mediterranean, desert conditions in the South, and hilly, limestone-rich but nutrient-poor souls near the Jordan border.

Secondary to the inherent limitations due to topography and rainfall have been limitations due to mismanagement. Before Israeli independence in 1948, the territory that eventually comprised Israel went through a succession of empires, including the British, Ottoman, and Byzantine.

The lack of commitment to managing the territory resulted in some less than desirable conditions: malarial swamps near the coast and Huleh valley, barren hillsides due to deforestation, and limited topsoil due to wind erosion. Significant efforts to drain the swamps and plant trees managed to greatly improve the soil conditions as well as increase land cultivation. Planting trees such as carob not only served to stabilize the soil but also to eventually provide fodder for grazing animals such as goats and camels.

Perhaps the greatest issue that continues to impede agricultural development in Israel is its access to water. Given that rain only falls in Israel during 5 months of the year and can range from around 40 inches in the North to around 2 in the South, water has always been at a premium.

Further, given that Israel is surrounded by historically hostile neighbors, having an independent water supply is critical to sustaining crops and pastures. As noted in the above source, initial efforts to manage water supply included using treated wastewater effluent to water dune grasses, desalination, and trapping flash floods to resupply groundwater.

Part of Israel’s success in agricultural yields has been due to proper crop selection due to the circumstances. For example, given the limited amount of rainfall in the Negev desert in the south of Israel, much of the groundwater has a high salt content undesirable for crop production.

Some farmers have taken to growing olives using this water rather than importing freshwater or desalinating the saltwater and have experienced surprisingly high yields. Likewise, intensive breeding efforts have yielded various water-intensive crops, including the cherry tomato, Bet alpha cucumber, and the Anna apple.

The most revered developments in Israeli agriculture have been drip irrigation and greenhouse utilization. Drip irrigation was developed in the ’70s as a means of increasing watering efficiency. Through perforated plastic tubing, farmers can control the quantity and rate of water flow, allowing for more efficient water uptake. Likewise, efforts have been implemented to mix fertilizer with water to control the application of both efficiently.

In a similar vein, greenhouses were adopted as a growing method that has greatly increased control of the growing conditions. A properly implemented greenhouse reduces pest invasion, offers temperature control in the desert, and reduces both evaporation and erosion.

These methods are not only critical to Israeli agriculture but also to various agriculture technology companies who have exported their services; in 1998, exports of Israeli irrigation equipment were approximately 300 million dollars.

Israel’s agricultural sector is a sizable contribution to its overall GDP. As of 2019, agricultural exports totaled over 2.1 billion dollars. Despite the significant export revenue, Israel’s growing population requires net imports on agricultural products, with 7% of agricultural imports from the United States and sizable imports from other countries around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

The EU is one of Israel’s largest trade destinations. Still, due to worldwide competition, mostly from the UK, US, and Brazil, among other nations, Israel only claims 1.1% of the market share of exports at 830 million euros.

One of the greatest agricultural exports from Israel has been ideas and assistant lent to developing countries. Given the arid conditions faced in many developing nations, particularly in Africa, Israel agricultural researchers have assisted with varying issues, including decreasing crop damage, improving watering efficiency, and improving yield.

Countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria, and Ghana have benefitted from Israeli expertise in drip irrigation and improved jojoba yields, desert aquaculture, and wastewater recycling, all important issues for countries trying to improve their agricultural efficiency.

Growing populations, fluctuations in worldwide markets, and climate change all pose challenges to further innovations for Israel’s agricultural technology. Future developments include organic pesticide usage, wireless water usage, and integrating corporate social responsibility into product development. These are just some of the various issues guiding Israeli agriculture’s quest to ensure sustainable and productive developments.

Vineyards in the lowlands of Israel

Types of agriculture technologies in Israel

Irrigation is perhaps the hottest topic in Israel’s agriculture technology, given the importance of water to the country as a whole. Whereas drip irrigation has long been the precedent in Israeli agriculture, companies such as SupPlant are pioneering new innovations that integrate the Internet Of Things (IoT) into water control.

SupPlant’s system, deemed growth-based irrigation, uses weather-tracking systems as well as stem sensors to determine when is the optimal time to provide water to crops. SupPlant’s claims its technology not only saves considerable water but improves yields upwards of 5%, a welcome addition when water is already being conserved.

Similar to the influence of internet-mediated irrigation technology is the applications of precision agriculture. Precision agriculture includes devices such as satellite imagery and drones to monitor vegetation growth and amend with precision-applied fertilizers and pesticides.

One such company pioneering this development is Driftsense, which seeks to reduce the amount of pesticide drift that occurs with pesticide applications, a significant problem due to lack of efficiency as well as health concerns for workers. Driftsense’s technology can be tailored to specific crops, the terrain in which they are being grown, and specific weather patterns to maximize pesticide application efficiency.

Despite the relatively small dairy cows population, Israel is considered to have one of the most efficient dairy production systems in the world, with average milk production per cow exceeding 12,000 kg. Israeli dairy farming not only has to factor in climatic conditions relative to grazing and forage but also must take into consideration Jewish dietary laws that restrict how milk is obtained when cows are milked and what they are fed during certain festival periods.

To accommodate these factors, Israeli cows have been specially bred to have increased milk yields despite hotter conditions. Technology that has been implemented to improve efficiency includes cooling systems to reduce cow body temperature, mechanized milking systems, and computer-controlled feeding systems to precisely control when cows are being fed.  Tara dairy is one of the leading dairy operations in Israel, producing roughly 12-14% of the milk produced in Israel through its integration of these various technologies.

Given the increasing world population and the extensive resources needed to raise conventional protein sources, such as beef and poultry, alternative protein has become a critical source of innovation in Israel’s agriculture technology. Alternative protein sources include plant-based proteins as well as laboratory-produced cultivated meat and dairy substitutes.

InnovoPro is leading the way in plant-based protein production with its chickpea-protein concentrate that can be used in puddings and as a mayonnaise substitute. Other companies such as SavorEat and Redefine Meat are incorporating 3-D printing technology with plant-based protein production to create a diverse array of plant-based protein products.

The other spectrum of alternative protein production features companies such as Alef farms, a pioneer in cultivated meat production. Given that 85% of beef is imported into Israel scaling up cultivated beef production could drastically reduce meat imports while also potentially providing an export industry.

The austere growing conditions found in arid regions such as the Arava and Negev means that growing seeds in saline soil will only increase in sophistication. Previously, crops such as olives, melons, and tomatoes were the primary recipients of water high in salt concentration due to their limited effects on the application and their high market importance.

Now, companies such as SaliCrop are pioneering the raising of less salt-tolerant crops such as carrots in salt-rich soil. Using a formulated chemical coating, seeds grown in this method can resist the effects of high salt concentration. This method can be extended to crops including cotton, rice, and wheat which will improve yields in other counties affected by arid conditions such as Mexico and India.

Israel Agriculture in the desert – Near the Dead Sea (credit: WebsThatSell)

Part of improving food production is ensuring that food products arrive at the market undamaged. Israeli companies are pioneers in the development of drones to pick fruits and other agricultural products. One such company is Tevel Aerobotics, a leader in the development of drone technology.

In response to shortages in agricultural labor necessary to pick fruit crops, Tevel’s technology allows for its drones to not only pick fruit but also to identify blemished fruit as well as prune trees, providing a resourceful tool that can handle a variety of agricultural needs.

Providing fresh fruit is essential for meeting consumer demand and is critical in reducing food waste, and Israel agriculture technology companies are leading the development of fruit freshness apps. AclarTech has developed an app that allows for real-time monitoring of fruit and vegetable ripeness and freshness.

Monitoring freshness by algorithms allows for more precise determination of when to pick fruits, reducing the likelihood that fruits are too ripe and more likely to spoil in transit. This technology is critical to maximizing harvest yields and ensuring greater efficiency from transporting food from the field to the table.

Few can appreciate the challenge of ensuring that crops arrive in proper condition, making developments in agriculture storage that much more critical. Amaizz is leading the way in crop storage with a variety of mechanisms suitable for storing crops.

Among them is a grain-drying tent capable of working in arid climates and ensures that crops such as maize are dried to ideal moisture levels, generally about 2% water content, to prevent fungi’ growth bacteria during storage and transit. Amaizz also has developed mobile, solar-powered, recycled-material composed refrigeration units suitable for small-scale farmers who otherwise would lack access to refrigeration necessary to preserve crops until they reach the market.

Environmentally friendly lures are a critical component to deter the destruction caused by fruit flies against crops such as mangoes. Biofeed is a leading company in the development of such lures, using food, feeding stimulants, or therapeutic agents to attract and kill flies. This method has been critical to farmers outside of Israel as well, helping mango farmers in countries such as Ghana as well as Togo prevent the destruction of their crops due to fruit fly infestation.

As with the implementation of precision agriculture and incorporating the internet of things, cloud-based farm management systems play a growing role in improving farm production within Israel. Akologic’s system allows for growth and disease prediction monitoring, crop picking, and expense planning guides. A cloud-based platform can integrate all levels of the supply chain, from growers to vendors to consumers.

It can accommodate various users from a variety of backgrounds, making the platform universally accessible and easily integrated into any growing system. In a global marketplace that requires collective and immediate responses to everything from water usage to pest control, a cloud-based system greatly condenses and streamlines the content sharing necessary to resolve these issues efficiently.

Farming in the Israeli desert continues to be the final frontier and challenge for Israeli agriculture and developments in Israeli agriculture technology. Research into improving crop tolerance of aridity and salinity continues to be major investments.

Amid these investigations, the Tal Ya tray is one of the more prominent developments in increasing yields in arid environments. Thanks to its unique design, the Tal Ya tray helps direct condensation from dew back down to plants, reducing water loss to evaporation. The trays also help to direct rainwater and irrigation water and fertilizers and pesticides, reducing the amount needed per plant and the expenses and contamination that arise due to over-application.

Irrigation in Israel – North of Israel

Israel agriculture technology companies

Beyond the companies already listed, various companies are expanding their niche as innovators of agriculture technology. DouxMatok is a pioneer in alternative sugar development. Given the rise of obesity and the propensity for over-consumption of sugar-laden products, finding an alternative to sugar that retains the same chemical and culinary properties makes for a coveted product.

DouxMatok’s Incredo sugar, based on cane and beet sugar, targets taste receptors to create the sensation of sweetness without the caloric load of these natural sugars. Another pioneering company is Hinoman, which has developed a hydroponically-grown whole leaf vegetable. Its Mankai plant, specifically bred as a hybrid of various Southeast Asian plants, is nutritionally rich, with an abundance of vitamins such as A, E, and B12, and being a rich source of protein, making this plant more nutritionally dense than most other plant products.

Infarm’s technology allows indoor farming of various herbs and greens such that supermarkets can sell the greens as their growing indoors. This technology drastically reduces watering, fertilizer, and pest expenses while reducing the land and transportation footprint necessary to bring crops to market, making eating more efficient and convenient for growers, vendors, and consumers.

A variety of Israeli companies are bringing Israel agriculture technology to India. Adama India provides various herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides specifically tailored to Indian crops, helping to increase yields by preventing crop damage.

Given the similarity of climates between India and Israel, the amount of Indian land designated for agricultural purposes, and the volatility of these crops to climatic change, having more climate-stable growing conditions is optimal for future growing operations. Top Greenhouses is a leading supplier within the Indian market, paring with EPC Mahindra, a leading micro-irrigation company within India. Profit-Agro’s hydroponic raft systems have managed to expand the production capabilities of Indian agriculture.

Hydroponic systems allow for pesticide-free, year-round, input-efficient harvesting that can be adaptable for various crops. Given the limited technology used throughout India and the need to improve efficiency, technology such as hydroponic systems and the various other Israeli technology used throughout India will greatly increase agricultural output.

African countries are another vast recipient benefitting greatly from Israel’s agriculture technology. Agrivision is one such company lending its services to improve agricultural output in various African nations. Agrivision provides planning and site assessment services to determine what crops can be best grown and what engineering resources are most needed to improve output.

A site assessment is critical to avoiding wasted revenue on poorly-suited crops and excessive inputs necessary to sustain these crops. Amiran Kenya is another company targeting the growing African market. Working with small farmers in Kenya, Amiran Kenya provides farmers with kits that include seeds and fertilizer to streamline sustainable growing operations for small-scale farmers.

Netafim is a company helping farmers to improve their watering practices. Netafim specializes in irrigation technology, including sprinklers and drippers, even in water-rich regions in East Africa, which can improve yields and reduce costs, earning farmers more long-term. Netafim also offers crop-monitoring technology to assess crop variability and precisely apply fertilizers and pesticides more efficiently.

Israel Agriculture in the desert, Arava area, Southern part of Israel

Israel is the future of farming

Israel has always been a place of adaptation, and agriculture in Israel has always been at the forefront of various technologies and processes to improve efficiency. From drip irrigation to plant breeding, water desalinization to controlled dairy operations, Israel’s agriculture technologies have been critical to ensuring Israeli food security while also providing for a relatively lucrative export market to the EU and Russia, among other countries.

Given the various changes to market dynamics, from labor shortages to reduced water supply to increased temperatures, Israeli companies are constantly cutting edge with technologies seeking to outpace these problems. Incorporating the internet of things to streamline water-monitoring mechanisms, cloud computing to better connect farming supply chains, drones to improve crop collection, and food storage mechanisms to reduce crop losses are just some of the many mechanisms that Israeli companies have been developing to improve agricultural practices.

While these efforts are critical for Israel’s agriculture, they are equally critical for developing countries around the world, particularly in arid climates. Israeli innovations in water retention and pesticide delivery help farmers in developing countries improve yields and reduce costs, drastically improve business operations, and help these countries accelerate their economies.

It’s another sign of the great leap that Israeli agriculture has taken, from the struggling kibbutzim draining the marshes after independence to the flourishing farms in the water-poor and the salt-rich Negev. As weather patterns continue to intensify, the world population continues to grow, and land becomes more scarce.

Farmers will be forced to rely on agriculture technology developments to keep pace with production. Fortunately, Israel’s agriculture technology has paved the way for efficiency, resiliency, and productivity and will continue to do so for years to come.

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