More than half of Israel’s landmass is desert, but the country is not only largely self-sufficient with regards to food, it is also an agricultural exporter. From developing high-yielding variety of seeds to efficient irrigation, harvest, packaging and storage, the nation has pioneered advances in all aspects of agriculture. MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) is working with India through the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project, under which Centres of Excellence (CoE) are being set up across the country to share best practices and train Indian farmers. Dan Alluf, the agriculture counsellor of MASHAV in India, speaks to Syed Saad Ahmed about how Israel scripted its agricultural success story and their collaborations with the Indian government and farmers.
Food security is a concern as the global population expands. Israel has contributed more breakthroughs in this domain than any other country. How did it all start?
It began out of necessity. When Israel was established, we identified water and food security as a priority. We made sure that our farms support our population and farming becomes a profession which provides a decent income. One of our first national projects was transporting water from a lake in the north of the country to other regions for irrigation. This, along with technological innovations, made agriculture such a success that not only did farmers grow enough for our people, we also began exporting to other countries.
Could you explain how agriculture is organised in Israel?
In our country, there are two kinds of farm holdings, kibbutz and moshav. The former is a communal farm—hundreds of families live together and cultivate plots of around 1,000 hectares. There is no hierarchy; both the manager and the worker get the same salary. Moshavs are the farms run by families. Their plots are usually around 3-10 hectares. However, fewer people are now running individual farms; many rent out their land to neighbours. The number of farmers is decreasing, but the output is increasing.
Israel is a pioneer in drip irrigation. Could you explain its benefits and whether it can be adopted in India?
Israel invented new technologies for drip irrigation. It maximises water use—drip irrigation has 95 per cent efficiency, while flood irrigation only has 30 per cent. It helps precisely control irrigation and deliver water uniformly. Moreover, with proper use, it has a lifespan of 25-30 years. Drip irrigation is part of our knowledge transfer with India under the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project. We are sharing our experience in designing, implementing, maintaining and using drip irrigation systems. It is already used widely in India; in fact, the country is the largest adopter of technology in the world.
India wastes food worth about $14 billion a year, while 194 million Indians go hungry daily. How has Israel solved its wastage problem, so that more food can reach the market?
Israeli farmers are businesspersons and seek to maximise their income. We ensure the highest productivity, but we do not stop at harvest. Post-harvest management (grading, packaging and marketing) of the produce is as important. If we pick an orange from a tree in Israel, we also make sure it is stacked in a supermarket in, say, London. How do we do it? Our secret is that we work together as a team—farmers work with researchers, the government, and the private sector. Whenever a farmer needs to take his produce to a market and say he needs a shelf life of three months, he collaborates with the state and the private sector to innovate a solution. It is this teamwork that is responsible for our success.
In India, we are working with farmers through our CoE to devise such solutions. I must emphasise that these are possible because of the partnership led by the Government of India’s Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture (MIDH). There are 28 centres in 12 states, through which we are trying to establish a value chain—not just a product, but the entire process from cultivation and irrigation to post-harvest management. We try to figure out the farmers’ and markets’ needs and develop solutions accordingly. Say if mango has to be exported from India to the UK, it needs to be packed and transported in a certain manner. In Israel, we have developed a special kind of packaging, which extends the shelf life of pomegranates by three months. This is a game-changer—it gives a three-month window to the farmer to sell when prices are at their highest. So it not only reduces wastage, but also optimises the income of farmers.
What is precision agriculture? Are you implementing it in India?
Precision agriculture takes into account the geography of the field. In many countries, landholdings are huge and for best results, farmers must know the issues each part of the field is facing. In precision agriculture, satellite images can help you determine which parts of the field need more water, which plants have pest infestations, etc. This can help better utilise resources. So if one plant is healthy and the one next to it is not, we can maximise efficiency by only spraying pesticides on the diseased plant. But it is important to remember solutions like precision agriculture are just tools; they are not out objective. In Israel, labour is very costly and precision agriculture helps workers focus on the problem areas.
In India, we are using precision agriculture under the Indo-Israel Agriculture Project. At 21 of the 28 CoE, we get weekly satellite images of the field on our phones. This helps the project manager of the centre determine where and how much to irrigate.
(CoE In Mizoram)
Israel has made advances in biological pest control. In fact, Israel also exports beneficial insects to India. Is this scalable and sustainable?
In agriculture, we try to determine how we can use nature to maximise our output. Farmers today acknowledge that you must work with nature, not fight it. This can be done using integrated pest management. There are two aspects to this—protection of crops and pollination. So while we try to combat pathogens that harm the crop, we make sure we don’t get rid of all insects. We try to protect and promote the bugs that pollinate flowers. To fight pests, we try to introduce insects that control their population rather than spraying insecticides. It is a win-win—farmers reduce their costs and customers get produce with less pesticide residues.
In Israel, we are using the bombus bee, which is like a bumble bee. We have ‘domesticated’ it by putting up special hives for it in greenhouses. It pollinates all kinds of flowers and does not bite, so farmers can work peacefully. In Himachal Pradesh, we are trying to identify a local bee species that can replicate the bombus bee’s success in pollinating flowers.
To make it scalable, we first need to figure out the ability of the Indian farmer to invest in these solutions. These are in the hands of private companies in Israel. We need to find out how to motivate such companies to enter a market like India, work with the existing dealership networks and offer realistic prices.
How can we ensure that agriculture is sustainable and does not harm the environment?
Farmers have to use the same soil and water sources year after year. So they are very concerned about not contaminating the environment, while maximising high-quality agricultural output. I think new technologies are very useful for this. For instance, precision agriculture helps us in spraying the right amount of pesticides. If you spray too much, markets won’t accept the produce. Eventually, sustainability makes good business sense for the farmer—it maximises your harvest, the quality of the food is better and you save money.
You have talked extensively about the Indo-Israeli Agricultural Project. Could you recall an instance which made you proud of the work you are doing?
There are many, but I would like to recount my experience at the centre in Bhuj, Gujarat, where we are growing date palms. For one of our trainings, many farmers came and by the end, realised that if they work together, their output would be higher and they can reach markets better. I am a farmer too and I know that sometimes it’s not easy for farmers to work together because there’s also an element of competition involved in the trade.
On an individual level, one of the farmers at the training impressed me greatly His name is Ishwar Pindoria and he is an amazing entrepreneur. He was engaged and proactive in the discussions, and also took us to his farm. He diligently implemented the lessons learned in the training and after one year, not only did he have premium quality dates, but for the first time, he also exported his produce to Germany. I take no credit for this; it’s solely his leadership that made this possible. But I am proud that we were involved with the knowledge transfer.
In 2018, we trained 1.47 lakh farmers in India. It is a very hands-on training—we don’t just sit in an AC room, we meet at 6 am in the field and we work till sunset. All this is possible because of the partnership between the MIDH of the ministry of agriculture and farmer’s welfare, state governments, farmers and MASHAV. It is a dynamic partnership led by the Indian government.
(Ron Malka, Ambassador of Israel; Gil Haskel, Head Of MASHAV; Dan Alluf; and Sanjay Agarwal, Secretary of the department of agriculture, cooperation & farmers' welfare)
How involved is Israel with Poshan Abhiyaan, India’s project to eradicate malnutrition?
We are not directly involved with the programme, but by sharing knowledge, we hope to help farmers grow fresh fruits and vegetables and aid them in contributing to the country’s food security.
Many Israeli innovations in agriculture have come from startups. How does the Israeli government help and promote startups working in this field?
Innovation is in our blood. Our upbringing is such that we question everything and try to find solutions. When farmers feel the need for something or identify a gap, they collaborate with experts and researchers to find a solution. In that sense, innovation is demand-driven.
The government is actively promoting innovation through its policies. Among all nations, Israel is investing the most in innovation as a proportion of its GDP. I think the figure is around 4.3 per cent. Academia is also connected to the industry, which helps farmers adopt the latest technologies and keep abreast with developments.
Israel is one of the healthiest countries in the world. What explains this?
Our diet has plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables—we have salad three times a day, and lots of olive oil and fruits such as pomegranates. Mediterranean cuisine is famous for how healthy it is. Of course, as in other countries, junk food is becoming popular, but mostly, people are aware of the importance of a proper diet. We don’t have to worry about nutrition as long as we stick to our traditional cuisines—whether in Israel or in India. There is a reason why people have been having certain kind of foods for centuries.
(Canopy management training by a mango expert at CoE, Talala, Gujarat)