Desert in Bloom: The Incredible Story of Agriculture in Israel

College Admin

30 May 2016

Before I visited Israel, all I really knew about the country was its conflict with Palestine and what I had heard about their advanced agricultural practices. I traveled to the country with a group of two dozen international participants as part of an agricultural course. Like myself, when they thought about Israel, they mostly focused on its holy city of Jerusalem and the struggle with Palestine. But during our trip, we learned that the region is more than just a battleground.

While the area and its people have a long history, the State of Israel is a fairly new country, officially established in 1948. And for a new country, the development they have demonstrated in the last 50-60 years in not only commendable, it’s sometime unbelievable. The country currently has one of the fastest growing economies, is becoming a technological giant, and has produced a dozen Nobel Prize winners. However, if measured by their long-term impact on the world, Israel’s most important contributions might be in the agricultural sector.

In my opinion, most important on the list of agricultural innovations is the way they use water. For years, Israel had difficulty supplying enough water to adequately serve municipal and household needs. But with incredible innovations, they have been able to make the desert bloom. For someone from Nepal like myself, this is an incredible story. Nepal is considered the second richest country of the world in terms of water resources, yet the irony is that we have thousands and thousands of acres of unirrigated land and millions of people struggling to receive a regular supply of water.

So how does Israel do it?

Key to Israel’s water security are efforts such as an improved irrigation system, engineering crops to thrive in onerous conditions, recycling of sewage to use in farming, massive desalination, discouraging gardening, managing water leaks, and proper pricing mechanisms.

Israel’s drip irrigation system is one of the most vital technologies enabling them to keep their country hydrated. In a world getting thirstier and thirstier, a system ensuring efficient water use and squeezing the productivity out of every drop of water is an extremely revolutionary and necessary technology. Everywhere in Israel, from farms to public parks to kibbutzim (rural collective settlements in Israel with joint ownership), it is very common to see black or brown plastic tubes lying on the ground. Around 25-75% of water is saved using drip irrigation compared to flood irrigation.

Rows of flowersFlowers being grown using drip irrigation. Drips are used extensively, from the greenhouses to the sidewalks for ornamentals.
Another way Israel manages their water supply is by breeding and finding new varieties/cultivars that use less water. For example, growing dwarf wheat varieties instead of tall ones, breeding tomatoes with fewer leaves and the fruits more closely bunched together, and using drought-resistant varieties of crops.

Next is the recycling of waste water. Eighty-five percent of sewage water in Israel is recycled to be used in agriculture. Almost half of the water currently used in agriculture comes from recycled waste. Another 10% is used to increase river flow and fight forest fires. And only 5% is released into the sea. The country that comes in second to Israel in water recycling is Spain, which reuses 25%.

Another important achievement has been the desalinization of water along the Mediterranean coast using reverse osmosis technology. Presently, they have four massive plants to produce 500 million cubic meters of water distilled from sea water. While this process was once considered too expensive, as the technology has improved, the rate is down to about 2 dollars/cubic meter of water.

We also traveled to Arava Valley in the south of the country, where a pepper farmer told us that “rain is not good for our crops.” This was of course a very surprising statement coming from a farmer in a desert. He later explained, “As rain comes down, it leaches the salt to surround the roots around the rhizosphere and we have to irrigate our crops immediately after rain to remove the salts accumulated after rain, which adds to our production cost.” A statement that when I first heard it sounded absurd made sense after he explained his reasoning, which was verified later by other scientists.

One of the thousand pepper farm in Arava Valley (a desert)One of the many pepper farms in the Arava Valley, a desert in southern Israel.
The other fascinating aspect of their agriculture is to see how market-oriented they are. This might be common in developed countries, but in countries like Nepal, even today it’s something very alien. The crops they grow mostly go to Europe, Russia, and other surrounding countries. One of the scientists we met during our visit to northern Israel said, “There was a time when our production costs were low and we were able to compete with most of the countries for various commodities. However, today it’s going up and being competitive with them is getting tougher. Therefore, we aim to produce crops where we have comparative advantages over others, for example growing peppers, getting products into the market earlier than others, etc. Also, now we are moving into selling technologies and knowledge rather than trading products.” I was in complete awe listening to him, the explanations he gave and his confidence.

However, Jerusalem was both an interesting yet difficult place to visit. To see a 1 km square area, the Old City of Jerusalem, divided into squares named and controlled by religion is sad. In an open world, it was underwhelming to see that still we have big walls and borders separating religious states. There is an 8-meter high concrete wall built by Israelis to prevent Palestinians from moving between the West Bank and Israel.

In terms of agriculture though, Israel has shown the world that there are no excuses for not being able to grow crops just because you don’t have enough water and good soil. They have clearly demonstrated that if you have that commitment and determination, there is really nothing ‘impossible’ is this world.


By Sulav Paudel