Blog: Israeli agriculture conquers the desert

Adi Mayer, Contributing Writer

      Tourism thrives in Europe. According to the World Economic Forum, five out of the top 10 ranking countries for tourism are in Europe. I love traveling to European countries. I love the views and the art. What I love the most about Europe, is the food. Whether you are having a delicious bowl of pasta in Italy, or a nice plate of tzatziki in Greece, you cannot deny the incredible flavors Europe has to offer.

      One summer break, I was in Rome with my family, and we decided to take a cooking class to learn to make some of Rome’s traditional dishes. The instructor overheard us speaking in Hebrew and asked us if we were from Israel. We replied that we were from there originally. He then really surprised me, “You know, we Italian’s pride ourselves because of our tomatoes, but recently, I found out that we actually get some of our tomatoes from Israel!” It was quite funny how shocked he was, but I was shocked too. That is when I decided to do some research and I realized that, in many ways, Israel feeds Europe.

      According to the Global Agricultural Information Network, it turns out that, as of 2009, Israel became the 5th largest exporter of prepared tomatoes and the fourth largest exporter of fresh tomatoes to Italy. Furthermore, Israeli tomatoes cost about 25 percent more than any other exporter of tomatoes to Italy. The high demand can only be because of the reputation the tomatoes have for good quality and durability.

      This is especially surprising because of Israel’s harsh climate conditions. Israel is mostly desert. The land experiences extreme temperatures, high concentrations of dust in the air, inconsistent precipitation, as well as other conditions that normally have a negative impact on agriculture. It is hard to imagine successful farming taking place in such an environment, but once again the Israelis have managed to overcome these challenges with their innovative technologies and systems.

      There are many ingenious ways that people have been able to grow fruits and vegetables in Israel. One way this has been achieved is through a process called drip irrigation or fertigation. The method was invented in Israel and is now used all over the world. This form of irrigation saves water and fertilizer by allowing it to drip slowly to the roots of several plants through a system of pipes and tubes.

      People in Israel have also managed to combat weather issues by using a special plastic that covers greenhouses and helps to reduce heating costs during cold months. This technique is why Europe can enjoy fresh grapes during the winter.

      Finally, probably the most amazing innovation that the Israelis managed to develop are special seeds that are genetically modified to be able to endure harsh weather climates. In the past, farming was always a battle against the elements, but the creation of these new and improved seeds eliminated this issue.

      In fact, these seeds are so successful that Israel is no longer exporting just the crops, but they are also exporting the seeds themselves. Israel’s biggest export is tomato seeds. According to APMEX and an article from Haaretz, the demand for them is so high that a kilogram of tomato seeds costs more than a kilogram of gold.

      Israel also exports a lot more than just tomatoes. They also export peppers, eggplants, melons, watermelons, strawberries and herbs, as well as many other fruits and vegetables. For example, Jordan Valley-grown dried dates make up 35 percent of the global market. They weigh 20 to 30 grams, compared to typical dates that only weigh six to 11 grams, again overachieving in both quantity and quality. They do this by harvesting the dates a little early. Dates start off filled with water, which slowly matures into sugar. By harvesting the dates prematurely, they get them softer and bigger.

      It is amazing how just 20 years ago, Israel had a very limited agricultural exporting markets and now it has become a major player in the worldwide market. The current agricultural center of Israel is the Arava. It started off as a deserted 112-mile strip of land and has now been turned into a rich land of farming and agriculture. Aylon Gadiel, director of Arava R&D, was quoted for an article on Israel21c saying, “I think Israeli agriculture, in general, is an example for the whole world of how you can develop an area and live in it, too. We learned how to use our advantages, especially in winter, to produce good-quality vegetables for export to Europe and the United States.” If the people of Israel know anything it is how to turn nothing into something, and to me that is amazing.