'Start up nation' Israel now grows gold in the desert
The tiny country of Israel is woefully short of cultivable land and fresh water, yet today using modern scientific tools, it has literally been able to bloom gold in the hot Negev Desert.
More crop per drop is the motto for this nation often also called a 'start up' nation.
The country pioneered the drip irrigation technology there by literally providing the roots of plants just the right quantity of water drop by drop, unlike the wasteful flooding technique we see in India.
In most agricultural fields of Israel, thin black pipes are laid out like a giant spider's web, from tiny holes water is literally supplied directly to the root tips. The water flow is controlled by computers that constantly monitor the health of the fields.
Experts say in Israel, almost no fresh water is allowed to go waste, it is recycled several times and most of the agriculture farms in the country are irrigated using treated municipal wastewater.
A water expert Dr Jack Gilron, from the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, Sede Boqer, Israel said, "The country is very water scarce within the last 15 years we drought proofed the country using enough sea water desalination to take care of two-thirds of our domestic needs, we recycle seventy percent of our municipal waste water for agriculture. Between those two actions we have protected our country from drought."
If that was not sufficient, the agriculture scientists have pioneered the art of precision farming. High value crops are grown inside sophisticated climate controlled plastic green houses; here everything is controlled using computers.
Sensors detect the presence of water in the soil and sensors are placed even inside the plants as well to see if they are getting water starved. Just the right quantity of water is provided to the plants and farmers can monitor the level of water stress of the plants using a mobile app on their smart phones.
Even the plants are custom designed and trained so that they give the best yield, take the case of tomatoes they are grown in long rows with plants as tall as 2 meters and are held up using wires that guide the development of the plants so that they don't lodge when the heavy fruits weigh them down. From low value cultivation of cereals Israeli farmers, are
now cultivating high value vegetables and fruits that get them top rates.
Dr Tzion Shermer, agriculture scientist at the Desert Agriculture Center, Ramad Negev, said, "To get the best prices in the competitive fresh produce market, Israel tries to develop varieties of plants that will give best yields in the off season", adding this ensures that Israeli farmers get the best prices and value for investment.
According to Shermer, "when the market is flooded say with cherry tomatoes supplying some more is of no value, in Israel we try to grow them in the lean season which helps get the top rates."
It is not easy but then in Israel also called a 'start-up nation' failures don't mean the end of the world.
Yoav Tzruya, an investment guru of Israel says "one of the basic cultural differences that exist in Israel as a start-up nation is how we look at failure. In Israel, we do not penalize failure per se; we look at the entrepreneurs who have created their companies that have failed as people who have gained from their experience.
"We have been asked by many countries around the world to replicate it, the successful model of innovation and always culture was an obstacle, people that founded start up and failed were looked down upon. It is critical actually to embrace failure, learn from it rather than look down upon it."
Using the same principles innovation in agriculture takes place in small companies.
Despite all high technology one thing that Israeli farmers are not allowed to grow are genetically modified crops.
Prof Shmuel Wolf, Dean, Robert H Smith Faculty for Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University says "by law Israel does not permit any open farming of genetically engineered crops".
This he explains is based on the premise that since most of the fresh fruits and vegetables are for export to Europe where the citizens seem to hate anything genetically modified, Israel does not want to lose out on that lucrative market. Wolf explains research on genetically modified crops confined to strictly regulated greenhouses is permitted but open field cultivation of GM crops is not permitted in Israel.
Wolf says "to be a farmer in Israel is a matter of pride" and many farmers possess advanced degrees in agriculture and they are able to make 'lab to land' a reality.
Israel, according to Wolf, invests heavily in agriculture and he says since 1948 when Israel came into existence and now 'the area of agriculture has been reduced ten times and the production increased by ten times'.
In Israel even though farming is looked up to, in 1948 agriculture contributed 20-30 per cent to the economy, but now as the nation has embraced hi-tech the contribution of agriculture to the economy of Israel has dropped to about 2-3 per cent. However, it has moved from subsistence farming to precision farming.
Today Wolf says Israel imports almost all of its cereals and meats but the value of its annual agricultural production would gross over one billion dollars.
According to Prof Ayal Kimhi, an agricultural economist at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "the value of agricultural production in 2013 was equivalent to 8649 million US dollars just to compare the value of agricultural production increased by a factor of almost 30 times in real terms from 1948/9 to 2013."
The hot and arid region of Israel where almost nothing grew is now turning into an oasis of sophisticated farming. The father of the nation of Israel Ben Gurion is supposed to have said "if the state does not eliminate the desert; the desert may eliminate the state" keeping this mission in mind the small country of Israel blooms gold on the sand dunes.