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The State of Organic Agriculture in Israel

By Sarah Friedman

RAMAT AVIV, Israel (Feb. 28, 2013) — You might think that Israel — where chalutzim, pioneers, throughout the 20th century broke their backs to make the land support a burgeoning population, and where the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is the country's largest membership organization — would be a natural haven for organic farming. But it’s not easy to make the desert bloom without chemical assistance.


Interest in organic agriculture, which relies on natural land-use techniques and eschews synthetic hormones and fertilizers, has been growing in recent years but it remains more important in the Israeli export sector and for research than for domestic consumption.


According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, organic agriculture accounts for 1.5 percent of Israeli agriculture overall and 15 percent of Israeli agricultural exports. Of the 13,100 independent farmers in Israel, just 500 are organic. Together the organic farms use 70,000 dunams, or about 17,300 acres, of land — or about 20 Central Parks. Israeli demand for organic food is rising but it still accounts for about one percent of total retail food sales in Israel, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


By comparison, in the European Union, organic agriculture accounts for about 5.1 percent of agricultural area. Only about 0.7 percent of North American agricultural land is designated organic, but the U.S. organic food industry is growing fast — about eight times the rate of food sales overall, jumping 7.7 percent in 2010.


Organic vs. sustainable


“Organic” is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase to describe any food or technique that is good for the environment and human health. But officially, organic comes down to a labeling designation and is not always the same as environmentally sustainable agriculture.


Dr. Elaine Solowey, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel, describes sustainable agriculture as a tailored, area-specific agricultural practice integrating local natural components. Thrifty in water use and relying on local materials, perennial plants, and “target materials” instead of pesticides — such as pans of warm beer to attract slugs or kohlrabi as a sacrificial plant to deflect pests’ attention from other plants — sustainable agriculture enriches the area in which it is practiced. Sustainable agriculture is often, but not necessarily, organic — meaning it lacks chemical pesticides, chemical herbicides and chemical fertilizers. The defining feature of organic food is certification by an outside body. In Israel, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Plant Protection and Inspection Services issues certifications. Organic plant products are labeled and the first laws about organic certification for animal products went into effect last month.


In both sustainable and organic agriculture, “the whole idea is to get off the chemical dependency,” said Solowey. Chemicals not only kill microlife that is healthy for the soil and the environment, but they also harm humans who eventually consume food grown with them. Solowey warned: “All the things that aren’t target materials … end up in the food that we eat, making us more vulnerable because we are made of the same stuff that the insects are made of. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about that.”


In other words, if it huts insects, it will hurt us too.


A sustainable example


Yinon Ofaimme and his wife, Adi, founded a farm at the turn of the millennium.


“Like many others, it was just an organic farm,” Hedai, Yinon’s brother, said of the farm's beginnings.


The farm grew tomatoes in a monoculture, exporting them to Europe and the United States.


“But at the end of the day,” said Hedai, “growing organic or not growing organic in that kind of cultivation is pretty much the same. … You find yourself most of the time behind computer screens running a workforce of some 30 Thai workers. It’s not exactly the romantic dream of farming in Israel.”


After Yinon and Adi took a shmita, sabbatical, year to give the land and themselves some time off, they decided that increased competition and decreasing profit made them unable or unwilling to continue.


“And that’s when I joined,” said Hedai, a self-described “food guy” who writes about food for Haaretz. In 2008, he and Yinon and Adi became partners in the reworked venture that they dubbed the “Ofaimme Farm for Sustainable Agriculture.”


“We decided that organic is just not enough,” said Hedai. “ ‘Sustainability’ is the magic word today, like ‘green’ was 10 years ago and ‘organic’ was 20 years ago. … Sustainable means the things that I build today, my children will be able to make a living of without the need of increasing and increasing the resources.


“We obey all the organic standards but we go much further,” he said. “Being organic today is very close to conventional, not because organic is not good, but because conventional [has improved]. … What they used to use in Israel 20 years ago is not even legal today.”


Organic standards address only the food, he pointed out, and can ignore overworked land and underpaid workers. Now, when the Ofaimme brothers sell their goat milk, dates, tomatoes and jams, consumers can be assured that it comes from a good place.


Export and local markets


Local efforts like the Ofaimmes' farm are growing, but most of the organic market in Israel still exists for export. Israel has been involved in the organic market for nearly two decades, according to Onn Chen, C.E.O. of R.A.N., the leading Israeli grower and marketer of organic produce. Despite the overall economic downturn in recent years, the Israeli organic market has enjoyed five percent to six percent growth annually, led by fresh produce, he said. Yet 95 percent of produce grown here is for export, mostly to Europe and some to North America.


“There is very little organic production in the Middle East besides Israel,” Chen said, adding that during the winter months, Israeli farmers can be the biggest exporters to Europe of certain produce. Yet they have to contend with a challenge Spain and Italy do not face: Israeli companies pay up to 14.5 percent in custom duties for exporting from outside the European Union. It is nevertheless a huge economic boon, bolstered by its exclusivity: Israel is one of eight non-E.U. member countries approved for agricultural imports into the European Union, and one of only six approved for import into the United States.


Israel’s competitive advantage lies in its warm weather, which allows it to grow organic produce during Europe’s cold winters. The high season for export is January through March. Its main competitors right now are Spain and Italy, but Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are developing their organic markets as well, according to Chen. Despite these newcomers, Chen is confident in Israel’s continued success: if Israel “continues with the R&D and the good ideas and good thinking of the growers, it will keep one step ahead of the competition,” he said.


Thus the European market plays a determinative role in how food is produced in Israel. Dr. Hinanit Koltai of the Agricultural Research Organization’s Department of Ornamental Horticulture said that genetic engineering is not done commercially in Israel because the European market refuses it. The Israeli market alone is not enough to generate commercial production of genetically engineered plants, although the research is still being done in a highly regulated setting. One day, transgenic crops may enter the market.


“We do hope that in the future, such crops, responsibly used, could be one of the solutions for food crisis,” Koltai said in an e-mail.


And what about inside Israel? According to Solowey, the second biggest challenge to the growth of the local organic market is lack of consumer knowledge — but the first challenge is enough of a hurdle in itself.


“There’s less domestic interest because of the price,” said Solowey. “Food in general is more expensive in Israel than it is in the United States, apart from fruits and vegetables.” Anything that makes food more expensive will not be popular, she said.


But eating organic would initiate a virtuous cycle, she said.


"The more people are eating organic, the better the prices will be and the better the methods," said Solowey. "Eventually I think we’re going to make some progress with it. This pesticide and herbicide stuff is so expensive, so very expensive.”


Organic pesticides


Chen lists pest control as a top issue in organic agriculture. Conventional agriculture constantly develops new lethal pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but organic produce relies on organic pesticides and material such as compost, he said.


“It’s more of a challenge, but there are always developments,” said Chen. One example he gave was the neem, a tree grown in Israel. Its leaves produce an oil extract that repels flying pests. Like other organic solutions, “people see the potential so there is a lot of investment in R&D,” said Chen. “Israel is actually a world leader in development, new ideas, new products, new product lines (and) spraying and pesticides that they’re allowed to use in organics.”


Israel’s best example is Bio-Bee Biological Systems, a Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu-based biological pest-management company headed by Mario Levy, widely considered the father of Israeli organic agriculture. Used in both organic and conventional agriculture, domestically and abroad, Bio-Bee’s products offer a natural solution to agricultural problems typically treated with chemical pesticides that produce harmful residue and eventually become ineffective as pests build resistance. The company breeds beneficial insects that fulfill a range of positive biological functions and drastically reduce farmers’ need for chemical pesticides. Its innovative products include bumblebees that naturally pollinate crops, sterilized Mediterranean fruit flies whose presence reduce their own species’ reproduction, and predatory and parasitic insects that biologically control crop pests.


Israel’s organic future


“In the span of a man’s lifetime, you can turn a very good field into a parking lot if you’re not careful about chemical fertilizer,” said Solowey. “We don’t have an infinite amount of land. … If we had [abundant] arable land, I wouldn’t be out in the desert growing things in rocks and sand.”


Slowly, interest in organic and sustainable agriculture is growing in Israel. Increased commercial interest in organic products could bolster farmers doing good for the land and their community, and wider use of biological pest control would result in healthier, sustainable agricultural systems throughout Israel. Such efforts would make a real long-term difference in the viability of Israeli agriculture.





Sarah Friedman is a former reporting intern for Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




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