How Israel turned dry land into a barn for invention

Published on 06/12/2008

By Amos Kareithi

As the world grapples with the perennial problem of food scarcity, Israel believes it has the answers.

And it has flung open its doors to showcase its expertise and advancement in agriculture and technological innovations, to woo the world to look at Jerusalem for answers.

In 2005, agricultural exports earned the country a whopping Sh134 billion.

The director of Department of Agro Technology, Water and Environment, Yitzhak Kiriati, says despite being surrounded by hostile neighbours, Israel has overcome the challenges posed by acute shortage of water and limited arable land.

The Kibbutz Affikim farm rears 1,000 high breed Holstein cows on a 15- acre farm.

“Two thirds of the world population do not have water to drink. Our approach to agriculture is different and that is why we are leading in the world,” he told visiting journalists last month.

The biblical description of Israel as land flowing with milk becomes clear after a visit to a communal dairy farm Kibbutz Afikim, which was established in 1977.

The farm has 17 workers, who tend to 1,000 Holstein high breed cows on a 15-acre plot.

Mr Alon Arazi, the Kibbutz Afikim software technician explains: “The days of bucket milking when the farmer was emotionally attached to his cow and could call it by name are gone. You cannot milk 1,000 cows manually.”

He demonstrates the ingenuity of the Kibbutz, which has a fully computerised milking parlour where each drop of milk is measured as it gets into the can.

“Each of the cow has a chip, which monitors its activities and reports to a central computer indicating its health and when it is on heat,” adds the specialist.

Kibbutz has commercially produced 4,500 computer management systems and 17,000 computerised milk-metres as well as two million cow identity cards, which have been sold to more than 50 countries.

The cowsheds are cleaned mechanically and the sludge put into a central pit where it is used to produce electricity from biogas.

And at the nerve centre of the Israeli innovation, Agriculture Research Institute, Dr Sara Spiegle unveils more marvels of technology.

She explains that most of the inventions are motivated by Israeli’s peculiar position, sandwiched between hostile Arab countries and an unyielding desert.

At the Centre, 200 scientists and 390 researchers are busy working on non-food bio-diesel crops to alleviate the twin problem of food and oil.

“The current global food crisis has been caused by the use of crops to make bio-diesel. This is causing shortage of cereals and animal feeds. This has even forced the price of meat to go up,” explains Dr Yiftach Vaknin.

He adds: “Although the corn grown in America is meant for food, meat production requires a lot of cereals. They use this corn for bio-diesel.”

So far the scientists are working on Jatropha and Castor plants and are convinced in next 4-6 years these crops will be mass-produced as is already happening in Brazil.

“We are convinced that the future of non-edible bio-diesel lies with Jatropha. Unlike Castor, this is a tree. In the meantime, Castor is popular because it takes only 3-4 months compared to Jatropha, which matures in two years,” Vankin explains.

New tomato plant

It is at this centre that scientists have devised a new type of tomato without seeds that is resistant to disease.

The optimum utilisation of resources is demonstrated in Hadera, near the Palestine border where a unique irrigation system has been developed.

The system, agromaster, reduces water wastage by 50 per cent.

“The system also saves fertilisers by 80 per cent as it is applied on to the plant. This rules out the need to recycle run-off water,” the group’s agrotech expert Meir Loebiger says.

The system also monitors the acidity levels of the soil, oxygen, water intake and fertilisers as it takes samples and feeds it in a central system.

Loebiger says the controller of the system, which is like a laboratory, costs Sh7.8 million and can cover from half an acre to hundreds of acres. The system is also being used in countries such as Australia, US and Turkey.

At Zeraim Gedera Seed Company, scientists have successfully inoculated plants with pathogens to make them more resistant to disease.

Designer seeds

Employing 890 personnel, the company now designs seeds, determining size, colour, shape and taste of the crops.

Zeraim’s Marketing Manager Tal Frank says: “We sell generics to our consumers. We keep the parent line very secret. It takes about seven years to develop. Growers must come to us for seeds.”

Histil Nurseries has reduced the three days needed for germination to five hours and is now earning a lot from its billion plants as each is sold for one Euro.

The researchers have also come up with innovative biodegradable packaging materials, which prolong the shelf life of perishable goods. The special plastic bags are commercially produced and they prolong the life of the vegetables, fruits, meat and fish.

The Israeli government has organised Agritec exhibition, scheduled for May 5-7, 2009, in Tel-Aviv to showcase these strides.

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