How Israel became a world leader in agriculture and water management

What insights can African countries draw from Israel to revolutionize their own agricultural and water systems?

Tony Blair visits a fishing village in  Sierra Leone (photo credit: THE TONY BLAIR INSTITUTE FOR GLOBAL CHANGE)
Tony Blair visits a fishing village in Sierra Leone
See below "Foreword to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change report"
Despite numerous challenges, Israel succeeded in transforming its agriculture sector and emerged as a world leader in agriculture and water management. Israel records the highest cow-milk productivity in the world (13,000 liters vs. 6000 liters in Europe), the highest tomato yield (300 tons per hectare vs. 50 globally) and the lowest post-harvest grain loss globally with a mere 0.5% loss compared to 20% globally. As a result of these achievements, many developing countries are turning to Israel to learn from it.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) equips leaders and governments to build open, inclusive and prosperous societies in a globalized world. It does this through both strategic advice and practical implementation. TBI’s longest-standing activity has been its government advisory work in Africa, which began in 2008. Today TBI advisers are working to support 15 African governments to enhance their effectiveness, address pressing challenges and deliver reforms to improve citizens’ lives. One of the highest priorities for many African nations is agriculture transformation, food security and poverty alleviation.
What insights can African countries draw from Israel to revolutionize their own agricultural and water systems? To answer this question, TBI teamed up with Volcani International Partnerships (VIP) – the nonprofit partner of Volcani Center, Israel’s leading Agricultural Research Organization, and with the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to explore the drivers that enabled Israel’s sector-wide transformation and what lessons can be learned by African countries, facing similar challenges that Israel faced in its formative years.
We conducted 25 in-depth interviews with leading experts in the Israeli agriculture and water sectors and co-authored a report shedding light on how Israel developed its agriculture and water sectors, with an emphasis on the roles of government, markets and innovation.
“I believe that Israel’s agricultural expertise is greatly underutilized for development diplomacy and creating real impact on the ground,” says Danielle Abraham, executive director of VIP, an organization dedicated to making Israel’s expertise and innovation capacity available to the world. “Sharing Israel’s advances, especially those which enable its desert agriculture, may be critical in enabling the world to continue to feed itself.”
The report was launched at the 2019 African Green Revolution Forum in Accra, Ghana – Africa’s largest agriculture conference. Combining perspectives of the three organizations – Israel’s agricultural ecosystem (VIP), African small-holder farmers (AGRA) and African governments (TBI) – the presentation of the report and the discussion that followed suggested a paradigm shift in the way agricultural transformation has been perceived and addressed in developing countries. The event brought together African government officials, among them the Ghanaian minister of Food and Agriculture, the Israeli ambassador to Ghana, Israeli agritech businesses and numerous development partners, such as USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The president of the World Food Prize in the United States, Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, who was present at the launch, was very excited and proposed that the same presentation be delivered at his organization’s annual event in the US.
While Israel is not a natural nor seemingly sensible place for agriculture, with two-thirds of the land semi-arid or arid, a shortage of natural water resources, scarcity of precipitation and positioned far from potential export markets – the opposite is true for most African countries.
Compounding such difficulties, most of the early immigrants to Israel had no prior farming experience and on arrival faced arid, barren or swampy landscapes.
While some factors of success are unique to Israel and not replicable, such as its strong ideological ties to agriculture and the pioneering mindset, there are others that are.
First is effective government, particularly Israel’s approach in the 1950s and 1960s. It consistently showed visionary leadership in a long-term commitment to agriculture and water. In its early years, 30 percent of its national budget was devoted to agricultural and water, with another 30 percent being devoted to education. This led to early investment in an effective institutional architecture and a robust and targeted agro-industrial policy with dedicated and well-run plant production and marketing boards that ensured specific sub-sectors (fruit, vegetables, etc.) could flourish in competitive markets. “Farmers cannot sell their crops in Covent Garden,” the former head of Israel’s citrus board said, “so they need a bigger structure above them to fix that problem.”
Second is the organization of farmers. From the beginning, Israel’s farmers were either organized in well-managed and effective cooperatives – kibbutzim and moshavim – or were private farmers represented by a farmers’ association. This connection to a larger unit of production, proved critical in facilitating farmers’ bargaining power, enabling them to compete and function effectively, granting access to finance, research, training, farm inputs and markets.
Third is an unequivocal market-oriented approach. The market served as a guiding star for planning, prioritization and coordination, for both government and farmers. Crucially, from the outset there was parallel development of both the local market for food security and self-sufficiency, and the international export market for economic growth. The export market was always a key driver in Israel’s agriculture research, which has always been focused on how it can improve the country’s competitive advantage in target value chains. This is how Israel has come to lead the world in numerous products including dates, pomegranates, oranges and tomatoes.
Fourth, Israel has a farmer-centric, multidisciplinary innovation system focused on problem solving – “Nothing is impossible until we prove it is impossible,” said Zion Deko, director of a local R&D station. Key to this relentless approach is the golden triangle: the close relationship and flat hierarchy between researchers, agricultural extension workers and farmers. This is supplemented by agro-industry, which is essential to commercialize innovative solutions and make them available nationwide.
“Israel’s impressive and well-funded innovation ecosystem is central to its success in agriculture and water management,” says Abraham. “It not only provides solutions to problems faced by farmers and actors along the value chain, but continually develops new opportunities for the sector. At the forefront is Israel’s national agricultural R&D center – the Volcani Center – as well as a world-class extension service.”
Finally, the way international support was channeled at Israel’s early stages of development meant that the government could spend these resources according to its own development plan. In this way the country could direct resources to where it needed them most. For example, as early as the 1950s funds were used to build a 250 km water pipe – a project deemed impractical by multiple engineers at the time – from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) in the north to the Negev desert in the south. This was a key component in the successful agricultural utilization of the desert lands (over 40% of Israel’s vegetables are grown in the desert, including 90% of exported melon).
These are instructive and powerful lessons for officials and professionals who are grappling with the challenge of transforming agriculture in developing countries in Africa and beyond. Each developing country needs to chart its own path to success based on its unique characteristics and competitive advantages. But if governments, researchers, development partners, farmer representatives and the private sector could apply these five insights to their work, Israel’s agriculture and water phenomena can truly serve as an inspiration for developing countries seeking such a transformation.
Foreword to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change report
By Tony Blair
For many in the world, Israel is most often discussed in the context of the Israel/Palestinian dispute and hopes for its peaceful conclusion. But alongside this long-running political question has been the emergence of Israel as a successful, modern and innovative nation. In fact, Israel has overcome overwhelming challenges, such as water scarcity and poor land conditions, to emerge as a world leader in agriculture and water management technologies – spanning the spectrum of low to hi-tech solutions for small-holder farmers and large conglomerates.
In recent years, arising out of my intensive engagement with Israel and Africa, I have been approached by numerous African leaders seeking to connect to and learn from Israel’s agricultural miracle. Through these various interactions I have come to see first-hand just how much Israel has to offer others from its experience in “making the desert bloom” – building a thriving agriculture sector under conditions of considerable adversity. Africa is on the rise. With a predicted four billion people in just 80 years’ time and half its territory as yet uncultivated, Africa has the potential not only to feed itself, but be the primary exporter of food products to a hungry world.
We are already witnessing varied signs of development and economic transformation across the African continent and yet the scope for further and faster growth is immense. This is where learning from the lessons from a country like Israel will be so valuable and is precisely why the Institute has produced this report. It identifies how Israel developed its current capabilities from its starting point – when agricultural and institutional capacity and its GDP per capita were at similar levels to those of many developing countries today. Every country is unique and each has to chart its own course, yet certain principles and insights are universal.
The lessons one can draw from the way Israel structured itself from the early years are relevant for governments, farmers, markets and development partners. The Institute’s report examines the drivers behind Israel’s agricultural success, highlighting the key principles that should be applied across Africa and providing insights for developing countries seeking to drive and implement a transformative agenda in their respective agricultural sectors. These examples of best practice include being market-led, focusing on education for farmers, aggregating farming units, developing a research capability and targeting government infrastructure spending to drive economic transformation.
A striking example is the way Israel overcame acute water shortages with the dramatic decision to build a national water carrier to transport water from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) in the North to the Negev desert in the South, a decision that revolutionized Israel’s water distribution network and enabled Israel to farm the desert. From my conversations with many world leaders, I know the demand for agricultural solutions to revolutionize the sector is great and hope the lessons of this report for both governments and development partners can be an important step in meeting that demand. I am passionate about the work my Institute does to equip Africa’s leaders to drive practical change to benefit their people. Agriculture is a critical area within this work and I believe Israel’s agriculture experience is an invaluable tool in furthering our shared ambition for Africa’s future.