The Red Revolution (Extract)

Israeli strawberry farmers have began switching from insecticides to microscopic mites. The result: cleaner berries for export and home consumption.

26strawbs (photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
(photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. On a Friday afternoon in early March, a group of Thai workers wheel themselves under rows of hanging strawberries on Shimon Hai's farm in Moshav Ahituv, near Pardes Hanna on Israel's coastal plain. Sitting on rolling platforms, the men and women reach over their heads, plucking strawberries one by one and placing them in a single layer on shallow foam-lined white trays on the platform. Each worker picks from one row. Slowly, they move backwards, filling the stacked Styrofoam trays, plucking the berries by the stem to avoid bruising the delicate red fruit. Outside the plastic-enclosed hothouse the weather is balmy; inside it is sweltering and humid, especially for the workers dressed in protective pants, long-sleeved shirts and hats to protect them from the scorching sun. Hai grows his strawberries in a modern-day hanging garden. The berry shoots drape over the sides of long beige troughs that hang down about a meter and a half above ground. At one end of some troughs, a small plastic canister is suspended with wire above the plants. The canisters are labeled Aphipar and Spidex, brand names for microscopic parasitic wasps and predatory mites that eat the insects that would otherwise destroy the strawberry plants. Hai, 60, who grows 15 dunams (just under four acres) of strawberries in hothouses, relies on the insects to police his fields. He began growing hanging strawberries eight years ago with the help of a grant from the Ministry of Agriculture; five years later, he added predatory insects from Bio-Bee. The company, based in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She'an Valley, is one of the world's largest breeders of beneficial insects designed to reduce and replace chemicals in agriculture. Hai is part of a group of about 150 strawberry growers who work with the Bio-Tut (tut, pronounced "toot," is Hebrew for strawberry) program. Bio-Tut is a brand name for Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a method of farming that relies on both insects and pesticides to maintain healthy strawberries. Growers in the program, which was introduced in Israel in 1998, use predatory mites and parasitic wasps as the first line of defence against pests that ruin the strawberry crop. Chemicals are still used, but the list of approved formulas is shorter than that for conventional growers. Bio-Tut could also be called the strawberry of compromise. Using more pesticide than strictly organic growers, yet less than conventional farmers, Bio-Tut growers comprise more than half the strawberry acreage in Israel. This middle road position has created a consistent product for export and standardized the growth, monitoring and testing of the majority of Israeli strawberries. "I don't spray from the beginning of the harvest - with anything," says Hai, whose high-tech farming methods yield between 32 to 40 tons of berries to the acre - approximately double that of strawberries grown on the ground. He says he began using Bio-Tut to save the manpower it takes to spray the fields. Uri Golner is the head of the Pesticide Residues Department of Aminolab, a private lab in Nes Ziona that runs tests on produce for the Ministry of Health. He maintains that Bio-Tut strawberries consistently have up to 80 percent fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown ones. The first push for IPM came from European countries, especially England, according to Bio-Bee Head of Research and Development Shimon Steinberg. "There was a notion in Europe that strawberries were like a sponge that absorbs every chemical you spray in the field," he says. Bio-Bee, together with exporting companies, the strawberry growers association and the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture put together a package of predatory insects, close supervision and testing for chemical residues, Steinberg says. Ten growers produced IPM berries for export in the 1998/99 season. Three years later, the strawberry growers association wanted to capitalize on the success of IPM strawberries in the domestic market. A local newspaper exposÂŽ on the high chemical content of berries had created a slump in customer demand, which was a further incentive for the growers, Steinberg says. The Bio-Tut brand was ripe for marketing. Bio-Bee, which already had a reputation for growing bumble bees for agriculture, would sell parasitic wasps and predatory mites to growers and send out field advisers once a week. The Plants Board would test the strawberries for pesticide residues and Agrexco would export the fruit. At the end of the export season, Israeli consumers would get the leftover produce. Growers pay 2,400 shekels (about $700) per acre to Bio-Bee and a further 1,680 shekels per acre to the Plants Board to participate in Bio-Tut. This entitles them to 40 canisters of predatory mites and eight canisters of parasitic wasps per acre. The field inspectors who come weekly check the plants for disease or pest invasion and leave reports recommending further action. The growers also get Bio-Tut labels with their phone numbers on them to distinguish the brand in markets. In the first few years of the IPM project, the Ministry of Agriculture and exporting companies subsidized the cost of the package. As the project grew successful, they stopped the subsidy. The average strawberry farm in Israel has a yield of 5 tons per dunam, says Avraham Erlich, director of the Vegetable Department of the Plants Board, a body that represents all Israeli crop growers. (Strawberries are classified as vegetables because they are field crops, and not the fruit of trees, he notes, which is why they are under his province.) There are 3500 dunams, or 875 acres, grown nationally. This comes to 17,500 tons of strawberries produced per year in Israel. Bio-Tut berries account for 57 percent of the market. A dunam of strawberries yields a gross profit of 50,000 shekels, but after deduction of expenses, the net profit is only about 5,000 shekels per dunam, Erlich notes. This includes the high costs of picking each strawberry by hand, of packing the berries, and the wiring and plastic sheeting needed to shield the strawberries from rain and cold. Bio-Tut is both a beneficiary of and a cause of changes in pesticide use in Israel. The brand was born at a time when strawberry spraying was already changing. At the time of its establishment, the list of chemicals approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and by the exporting giant Agrexco had gotten shorter, with many pesticides from the organophosphate and chlorinate families prohibited, according to pesticide expert Golner. These pesticides disintegrate slowly, if at all, and their residues cause long-term damage to wildlife, especially birds. Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.