Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend for giant international corporations to become involved in environmental issues, combating global warming and its ensuing damage to world agriculture, the shortage of drinking water and food production particularly in countries challenged by phenomena associated with climate change. One of these corporations is the giant Volkswagen Corporation, which, in reply to the invitation of KKL-JNF World Chairman, Efi Stenzler, sent to Israel Professor JÃ¼rgen Leohold, head of Research and Development, for a concentrated study tour focusing on projects in the Negev and Arava.
In the July heat, with temperatures at 40Â°C (104 Â°F) in the shade, Professor Leohold toured KKL-JNF's central sites in the Negev and Arava, actually facing the extreme heat in a surprising manner, curious, asking questions and attentive to the explanations. "The realm explained to me here is very far from the sphere of my expertise - electrical engineering - so, I apologize if I ask many questions," said the guest at the start of the meeting with the research team at the Yair R&D Station for Agricultural Applications, near Moshav Hazeva in the Arava.
Arava R&D Products in International Markets
The meeting was opened by Mid-Arava Council head Ezra Rabins, a veteran of Moshav Zofar, himself an agriculturist, at present concentrating on growing peppers. Rabins used aerial photos of the moshavim planted in the endless desert landscape to provide demographic and employment data about the local council with its 5,000 residents, who between them produce about 60% of all of Israel's agricultural exports. Rabins stressed the need for the existence of the R&D station in the area for practical research accompanied with scientific application for the unique Arava desert agriculture, as well as for international models. He related the R&D to the global economic crisis, "We are in the midst of our own difficulties following the global economic crisis which particularly hurt bio-organic crops that have become too expensive for the European consumer. As a result 15% of the area's farmers that grow organic vegetables for export have been affected."
The Yair Research Station's manager, Aylon Gadiel, described the station's role in locating and developing vegetable species that will meet strict market requirements: - taste, color, appearance, long shelf life, and ripening at times when supplies of the same product from other sources are low, when demand and payment are high. Gadiel related how the desert weather in the Arava is an important factor in growing winter vegetables and flowers for the European and American markets.
Dr. Yigal Elad from the Vulkani Institute, the scientific head of R&D in the research center at Hatzeva, reviewed for the guests the scientific cooperation of the station with academic institutions in Israel about unique experiments for the area. "The major part of our research concerns every aspect of growing peppers here with the fundamental data about unfertile land, highly saline water and extreme weather conditions during summer months. Controlling ground- and plant- pests through biological methods constitutes another focus of continuing research wherein we minimize the use of chemical insecticides. In parallel, we are researching matching alternative crops for peppers to diversify our produce and to provide new sources of income. All the research conducted here is of great importance for many other areas of the world where there are severe water shortages or where the available water is of poor quality. As a result, we cooperate with organizations in European, America and African to publicize our research results and to teach the methods crystallized and tested here in the extreme conditions of the Arava."
Dr. Rebecca Ofir, scientist and researcher of many projects at the Yair Station in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University and the Dead Sea Center, presented our guest with a series of environmental research projects. Her research projects, conducted with young scientists from several academic institutions across the country, enable the cooperation between young academics and the Arava settlements, simultaneously presenting the communities with new livelihood opportunities whilst developing university-level knowledge within the local population. The researches guided by Dr. Ofir's include varied environmental topics - encouraging plant growth, pioneering work in the biological breakdown of greenhouse waste polyethylene sheeting and two highly important research projects in bio-technology. The first raises medicinal herbs and extracts their medicinal properties to treat two hitherto incurable diseases - Parkinson and Alzheimer - using Zebra fish as models in treating these two diseases. Dr. Ofir explained that symptoms of these two diseases when introduced into Zebra eggs, are conspicuous at an early stage and thus the research on these fish is conducted in a special laboratory.
Another research project still at very early stages examines the possibility of producing bio-diesel fuel from quantities of organic waste from vegetable greenhouses, rather than simply allowing the waste to decompose into compost. This subject of fuel elicited a barrel of questions from Professor Leohold.
The tour of the Yair Station area led by Aylon Gadiel, illustrated to Professor Leohold methods of planting winter vegetables in experimental greenhouses, refrigeration, unique ventilation and irrigation methods developed in the Arava. The amazing sight of breeding aquariums of salt-water and fresh-water fish, rapidly becoming a growing income source for several Arava farmers, elicited another barrage of questions from the Professor, who, received explanations in the experimental and fertilization laboratory for aquarium fish about methodology and about this new, expanding market - especially for the Far East, where it is of additional valued importance that the fish are bred in controlled conditions and not fished in open seas.
Building Life under Arava Extreme Conditions
Following the detailed scientific presentation, the Professor and his escorts went on tour of the sites and fields, led by KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler and joined by KKL-JNF's Executive Director of Resources & Development Division Avi Dickstein, director of the Southern Region, Ami Uliel, director of Land Development, Gershon Avni, KKL-JNF emissary in Germany, Shaul Horeb and his predecessor, Tzahi Ganor. For some of them, this was a familiar tour but for Volkswagen's senior official it was a unique experience with many surprises. "I am familiar with deserts, such as the colorful Kalahari Desert but here, this is an entirely different type of desert such as I have never encountered, so bare and dry. Therefore, I am deeply impressed with the tremendous achievement made in turning such a desert into fertile fields while building life under such extreme conditions. For someone who comes from a very materialistic world and from an affluent society, it greatly impresses me to experience people living and working here with inspiration, youngsters coming to this harsh area to live here. In Germany, the situation is precisely the opposite with the trend mainly amongst the youngsters to flee the agricultural areas for the cities."
Prof Leohold referred especially to the short meeting he held with Danny Cohen, formerly of Kibbutz Yahel in the Southern Arava, who, together with his wife, has established a tourist and agricultural farm at the site of the Arandel Police Station, north of Yotvata. During his brief meeting with this young Israeli, who is building his life and future with his own hands, our guest learned to appreciate the true qualities of many Israelis, who continue to amaze him and inspire him during later discussions with his hosts.
Growing Dates and Pomegranates in the Desert
In the southern-most research station, near Kibbutz Yotvata, the Professor was greeted by the R&D station's Manager, Amnon Greenberg, who showed him additional aspects of unique agricultural research conducted in the southern Arava. With the assistance of three researchers at the station, the major current research projects were presented: the exact measurement of irrigation water consumption through scientific instrumentation, the development of calculation methods for optimal water consumption for all types of crops, research in preventing infestation of viruses harming garlic crops, and research in growing dates and â€¦ pomegranates in the burning desert.
Research on irrigation and water consumption of various crops is of obvious benefit and needs no justification. However, the subject of plant virus disinfestation was clearly illustrated when the researchers compared ripened garlic infected with virus with ripened garlic clean of virus, which is over twice the size. The virus harms the garlic leaves and garlic heads are small with fewer cloves. After disinfecting the harmful virus by novel means developed there in the Arava, the researchers achieved tremendous harvests of giant garlic heads each with between 15 to 18 cloves! Nevertheless, this achievement is not considered sufficient: the researchers are now attempting to exploit the natural antibiotic of garlic, Allicin, which has a very short life span of only six hours from the time of its extraction from the garlic until it disintegrates. The research seeks to stabilize the molecules of the active antibiotic material to prevent its speedy disintegration.
At the fruit orchards research continues on eradicating or minimizing the damage caused by moth larvae in ripening dates and alongside this, research continues on developing a special strain of pomegranate that will ripen between June and August to provide the European luxury market at lucrative prices. The research station in Yotvata is busy comparing two different pomegranate groves, one cultivating regular pomegranate at their autumn season possibly withstanding the winter exfoliation and the other, the special pomegranate, an evergreen, capable of producing two crops a year. The research focuses on the most efficient methods of producing a maximum yield economically, whilst simultaneously maintaining the quality. As "seeing is believing" tall goblets of chilled pomegranates seeds, freshly picked from the experimental orchard that morning (30th July) were served.
Innovative Technologies Suitable for Use Worldwide
Amnon Greenberg summarized the scientific section of the visit. "Over the past decades, we have developed a series of innovative technologies to benefit agriculture, suitable for use worldwide. In Jordan, we have assisted - and continue to assist - agriculture on the eastern side of the Arava. In India, we have been active in areas especially suitable for growing dates, where, through practical application of our research, we have caused a turn-around in areas planted with ten million date palms. About 160,000 families who make their livelihoods from dates, who used to receive 3 - 5 rupees per kilogram of dates (an annual income of about $2,000 per family) today, through enhancement of the dates' quality, now receive about 120 rupees per kilo! The significance of this is that the annual family income jumped to about $7000."
KKL-JNF Chairman Efi Stenzler, added his hope for future cooperation between KKL-JNF and the Volkswagen Corporation, in view of the numerous ways in which KKL-JNF's R&D promotes not only the State of Israel but also on an international scale, particularly amongst developing countries.
Volkswagen's Prof. JÃ¼rgen Leohold replied. "It is self evident that for the State of Israel, what is being achieved here - and KKL-JNF's achievements in general - are of tremendous importance. But of no less importance is this work on an international level, particularly owing to climate change, the dearth of water, the population growth and the need to halt desertification. The work undertaken here, which clearly illustrates that there are practical solutions, is of incomparable importance. Therefore, I am sure that a way will be found, and areas will be found, wherein Volkswagen Corporation will wish to support resolution of problems of global climate."
The long, crowded tour day continued at the central honor site in the German States Forest, near Lehavim in the northern Negev where the Professor was honored with the planting a carob tree near the memorial site - a symbolic act, which no KKL-JNF guest coming to Israel will waive. Together with KKL-JNF's senior officers, Professor Leohold read out the planter's prayer and planted his sapling with KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler, who then presented him with a personal certificate attesting to the planting.
At the end of the day, with the setting sun, the Volkswagen Corporate representative spent time with his hosts in the fascinating landscapes of Timna Park. From there, he returned to Germany to convey to the corporate management at Wolfsburg his impressions, which, he claimed, would come under the heading, "There is much to be done!"
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