'Agriculture's future lies in sustainability'

Largest agricultural exhibition in Israel focuses on water, energy efficiency.

organic vegetables 88 29 (photo credit: )
organic vegetables 88 29
(photo credit: )
Agriculture's challenge in the 21st century is to make it sustainable for future generations, Hebrew University Prof. Eli Feinerman told those gathered for last week's Central and Northern Arava R&D Open House in Mercaz Sapir in the northern Arava. Feinerman is a member of the university's Department of Agricultural Economics and Management in the Faculty of Agriculture. Farming will remain an integral part of the global economy, he said, and is actually one of the ways a poor country catapults itself into becoming a richer one. The goal, however, is to do it in a way that ensures the land will still be usable for our children, he said. The annual open house and exhibition featured a series of speakers on Wednesday morning and then a day and a half of agricultural companies showing off their wares. The exhibition is the largest one of its kind in Israel. President Shimon Peres came down south to what he called "his favorite place in Israel" for the day on Wednesday to tour the area and visit the exhibition. Peres was minister in charge of development of the Negev and Galilee before becoming president. The main problem today isn't growing food, it is distribution, Feinerman said. Six million children under the age of five die of starvation every year, he said. Fifty-four countries cannot provide food for their citizens, while other countries have an overabundance of food. Reducing meat consumption in the US by just 10 percent would lift 10% of the famine in the world, he said, because it takes 5 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef. Dr. Arie Heilig, formerly of the Hazeva Research Center, told the audience that sustainability was already every farmer's problem. In Britain, consumers actually prefer fair trade and local produce over organic, he said, by way of example. Water Authority head Prof. Uri Shani described the water crisis plaguing the country. He added, however, that they were checking the possibility of building a desalination plant either in Eilat or the Dead Sea for use in the Arava within five years. Amid the water and energy crises, the watchword at the exhibition was efficiency. Product after product featured water-saving technology, more efficient greenhouses, management systems, sensors and other products. Netafim's latest product is a remote sensing system which measures the amount of water in the field every 15 minutes, a salesman explained to The Jerusalem Post. The wireless system, which can be hooked up to a regular laptop, provides the farmer with a far more accurate picture of his field which enables him to give his plants exactly enough water. The sensors are thin rods with a ceramic base which are stuck into the ground at varying depths and intervals. "The sensors have existed for a long time, but they used to have a clock on the top that measured the pressure on the sensor. Farmers used to check it manually once a day. Now, all the information comes to them and they can chart it over the course of the day in 15-minute intervals," he said. Such accurate readings help prevent over watering or under watering and, therefore, water waste. A Dagan Company official said that some farmers were managing to ride out the water crisis, while others had been forced to fold. The Israeli company focuses on making greenhouses as efficient as possible. They offer a range of products, including several which help retain the core temperature of the greenhouse. Retaining core temperatures, either hot or cold depending on the season, reduces energy consumption and helps the plants thrive. Greenhouses have a better yield than acres of open fields, but are much more expensive to run, the official added. In addition to better efficiency, mainstream agriculture is becoming healthier, according to Agrior General Manager Oded Breuer. Agrior is the largest Israeli organization which certifies organic products. While organic farming has been growing, mainstream farming has felt the effects of consumer demand for healthier products and have reacted accordingly. "If you go into Shufersal Deal, you'll see a whole range of regular produce, not organic, which is advertised as having been grown using far fewer pesticides," Breuer told the Post. Large supermarket chains have noticed the demand for healthier fruits and vegetables and have passed on those demands to the farmer, forcing a change in farming practice, he said. If you don't meet their criteria, then they don't buy from you, he noted.