Environment: Growing the bottom line

Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir says hi-tech farming is the only way to ensure the future of Israeli agriculture and boost profits at the same time.

July 11, 2013 23:05
Yair Shamir

Yair Shamir370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

‘It’s really a ‘to be or not to be’ question,” Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir told The Jerusalem Post during an interview at his Beit Dagan office on Tuesday. “If the second or third generation of people who established Israeli agriculture will not be interested in following their parents, there will be no agriculture.”

To keep young people interested in pursuing their agricultural roots, he said, Israel will have to create terms that will attract them. Continuing to integrate technology development into rural kibbutzim and moshavim will be crucial to the persistence of these communities in the future, the minister explained.

“We have to enable young people to build their dreams in an agricultural environment,” Shamir said. “There is a lot of hitech in agriculture, but it’s not the authentic one.”

Making agritech as attractive as and part of the “authentic” Israeli hi-tech environment will not only bring more young adults back to this environment, but will also generate a “huge amount of money” with “real business” opportunities, he explained.

Emphasizing that farmers will be able to “put the seed in the field without me,” Shamir said he would rather focus on his “own added value.”

With an engineering degree from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the agriculture minister has worked as an executive at various venture capital and hi-tech firms throughout Israel. “My own added value is how to make sure the seed they are putting in the ground is the best kind, how to do business overseas,” he said.

Some agricultural technology projects he specifically praised included a business developing pomegranate seeds into cosmetic resources, and another breeding cattle embryos to sell abroad.

“It’s not just by exporting zillions of tons of tomatoes and oranges and making no money – because basically when you export oranges, you export water, which is expensive in Israel, and labor,” Shamir said. “I prefer to sell smartness and knowledge.

Then you can get much more money.”

Along these lines, the ministry announced this week the advancement of Shamir’s proposal for an agricultural research development fund for the periphery, amounting to NIS 30 million for the years 2013 and 2014.

Exporting Israel’s agritech knowledge to other countries – as well as bringing representatives from the developing world to study here – will also remain a critical component of the ministry under his leadership, Shamir said. For example, Israel will receive 60 agricultural professionals from Latin America within the next year, double that of last year, he added. Hundreds of work-study professionals from Southeast Asian countries are also here learning agricultural techniques.

In India, meanwhile, representatives of the Agriculture Ministry are continuing to administer research and development centers throughout the country, where the Israeli experts train local professionals, who then relay their knowledge to farmers on the ground, Shamir said. Most recently, the ministry has also been approached by a number of former Soviet Union countries for potential agricultural technology collaborations.

In addition to improving the appeal of agriculture to youth, Shamir said he has plans to focus on the rural development segment of his ministry. To do so, the ministry has opened up a new department to improve the appearance and infrastructure of rural villages, in hopes of making them more attractive to young couples. “All of these things are to create one thing – to be the honey that will bring the [bees] to those places,” he explained.

Equally important to advancing agritech and developing Israel’s rural areas will be protecting animal rights, Shamir stressed, noting that animal welfare must remain under the authority of the his ministry – and should not be transferred to the Environmental Protection Ministry, as many animal rights activists have argued.

“Our position is loud and clear,” he said.

“It should be our responsibility – you cannot separate the responsibility with the authority.

We cannot create agriculture and then have somebody will limit us because of other issues not related to our national goals.”

For example, Shamir said, if a pack of wild animals is spreading rabies or another disease to other animals or humans, the Agriculture Ministry must have the authority to eliminate these individuals without the interference of a conflicting ministry, he said. “To be effective, everything that is related to agriculture and production should be under one umbrella,” he said.

Just as the Energy and Water Ministry holds responsibility for both the development of and environmental regulations concerning the country’s natural gas resources, so too should the Agriculture Ministry be responsible for both the cultivation and protection of the country’s animals and cultivated land, according to Shamir. Both of these issues have become highly disputed subjects among the resident ministries and their widespread opponents in recent months and years.

“You cannot on one hand look for cheap energy, and on the other hand ask that everything will be perfect environmentally,” he said.

Likewise, he emphasized, “if we will not enable our people to create something out of our land, there will be no Israel.”

As far as animals in particular, Shamir said that it is important for a farmer to know that he has one, central place, he can turn to with all issues related to his herds –the Agriculture Ministry. Israeli animal rights regulations, he explained, adhere to the global standards of OECD countries – such as when it comes to how to treat chickens and cows, and how to determine the amount of space that they need.

The ministry is in the process of expanding chicken coop size all over the country, Shamir added. However, he said that he would not be adhering to all of the demands of animal rights groups, such as those calling for coops enabling chickens to open their wings.

“What is good for the French chicken will be good for the Israeli chicken,” Shamir said. “And this should be somehow connected to the constraints we have.”

While emphasizing the importance of “not going backwards” as far as animal welfare, the minister said it is impossible to immediately destroy all the chicken coops built during the 1950s – as the farmers do not have the resources to build completely new ones. The result, he said, would mean a loss of local business and a need to import eggs.

In the cattle industry, the Agriculture Ministry is specifically aiming to achieve an environmental goal by transforming cow waste material into biogas – by launching financial incentives for farmers to dispose of the waste in such a manner, he explained. For the increased protection of the cows themselves, Shamir said that the ministry has mandated reduced temperatures in cowsheds as well as spraying the cows with cooling water, which also increases milk productivity.

Shamir, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction at his recent compromise with MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) on the latter’s bill to ban the Israeli trade of foie gras – a liver delicacy derived from forcefeeding ducks and geese, still popular in many European countries.

By banning the trade of the product rather than its import as planned, the country is able to remain an advocate for animal rights without damaging “the commercial relationship between Israel and Europe.”

“It will not be a precedent that can be used by other countries against us,” he continued.

“Moral issues are different in every country.”

On that note, Shamir said it was important to him not to set such a precedent with respect to a ban on importing fur products – a bill broadly advocated by animal rights groups and several Knesset members. Aside from the use of fur in hats worn by the religious community, there is almost no fur industry in Israel, and a prohibition could only cause unnecessary international problems, he explained. “It’s not an Israeli issue.

It’s a worldwide issue, and someone is taking advantage of the political situation here – new Knesset members are looking for a horse to ride on,” Shamir said.

Implementing such a prohibition in Israel would only “hurt some of our best friends around the globe like Canada,” as well as the religious population, he added.

“I don’t want somebody to use me as a tool for an issue that will hurt Jews and our best friends around the globe,” Shamir said.

Stressing that he has no problem with the moral goals of many animal rights groups and that his ministry professionals conduct constructive dialogues with most of them, Shamir said that activists should not be making cynical use of these very issues for their own agendas.

“I am not afraid to confront the greens,” he added.

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