Zipple - The Jewish Supersite
Home > History > Monthly science feature
Monthly science feature
Know how that made Israel's desert bloom is also helping other countries
By Wendy Elliman
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
January 29, 2001
JERUSALEM, What links villagers in Egypt with horticulturists
in China? Or Peruvian
agrotechnologists with agronomists in the Middle East? What do struggling
farmers in Mali and Niger have in
common with those in Senegal? The answer is the same for all of them: Israeli
knowhow. With a glittering track
record, Israel's agricultural and agrotechnological experts have for 40 years
been passing on what they've learned to
farmers in 140 countries -- from those across Israel's tense borders to those
across the globe.
Prof. Dov Pasternak shows the African Market Garden in Beer-Sheva at Ben-Gurion University to the Hon. Z. Otoro, Ethiopia's Ambassador to Israel.
Last year, some 1,400 foreign agriculturalists trained in Israel while
Israelis taught more than 70
on-the-spot courses in 50 countries and consulted in more than 100 long- and
short-term projects abroad -- a degree
of commitment which, according to MASHAV, the Israel Foreign Ministry
division coordinating this massive
outreach, ``is an expression of Israel's moral and human conviction to work
together toward the prosperity and
security of all peoples."
Israel's agricultural expertise has grown with its history. It began
with determined 19th-century pioneers
who reclaimed neglected land -- clearing rocky fields, draining swampland,
terracing hills, and washing saline soil --
and evolved into cooperation between farmers and researchers. Today, Israel's
agricultural sector is largely based on
science-linked technology, from plant genetics and blight control to
This technology is shared worldwide. Drip-irrigation, for example, which
directs water-flow to the
root-zone of plants, reducing water consumption by two-thirds, was created by
Israeli engineers at the
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and is now used around the
globe. Technion scientists, looking for
ways to use water yet more efficiently, are currently testing 'minute
irrigation' drip emitters that will create optimal
air-water relat ionships in the root-zone.
With water an increasingly scarce resource in much of the world, many
countries are turning to Israel for
help, especially those trying to develop their deserts and marginal lands.
One approach, designed to help developing
nations with little or no access to high technology, comes from Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev, where scientists
in its Blaustein Institute for Desert Research have resurrected the 2,000
year old techniques of the Nabateans.
``The Nabateans successfully farmed the Negev by building low walls
around plots of land to trap runoff
rainwater," says Pedro Berliner, chairman of the Blaustein's Els Wyler
Department of Dry Land Agriculture. ``This
technique is low-tech and inexpensive, and any farmer can implement it."
While students from Africa, South America and Asia come to the Negev to
study Nabatean and other
techniques, Berliner and his team are also involved in runoff rainwater
projects further a field. On a watershed in
Uzbekistan, for example, they're helping to cultivate grapes. Also in
Uzbekistan, as well as in Turkmenistan, they
are working with Dutch scientists testing indigenous water-harvesting
systems. And in Kenya, they're using
rainwater runoff to produce both fodder and firewood.
Agricultural villages in warm, dry climates are the target of another
water-use technology being developed
by scientists from the Technion, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
To simultaneously solve
water-shortage and flow of untreated sewage into streets and fields, they've
designed a recycling system that collects
sewage, treats it, and uses it for irrigation.
``The project is based on wetlands and ponds built in open spaces to
treat wastewater, with the warm
climate reducing energy requirements," says Prof. Michal Green of the
Technion's Agricultural Engineering Faculty.
``Its advantage is that it doesn't need trained personnel for on-site
maintenance or operation." A pilot plant is already
up and running in the Galilee, with a second soon to open in El-Sadat in
While scientists search for ways to stretch water, its scarcity is
causing agriculture to shift from extensively
farmed, mass-produced crops to intensive growing of niche-products based on
technological R&D. With world
hunger rising, Israeli researchers are trying to increase both crop yields
and their nutritional value.
A new variety of wheat, for example, has been developed at the Weizmann
Institute of Science in Rehovot.
Scientists transferred genes from wild emmer wheat to domestic varieties,
increasing yield by 40 percent. A group of
tomato genes, discovered by a joint Weizmann-US team, protects the fruit from
wilt disease. This finding will not
only reduce the need for chemical spraying but also help cultivate varieties
of tomato -- and, hopefully, other crops
as well -- that are more resistant to disease. And Prof. Gad Galili of
Weizmann's Plant Sciences Department is
turning vegetables and cereals into sources of protein. He has genetically
engineered strains with an increased amino
acid content -- an essential protein that, until now, has been obtained
largely from meat.
``The isolation and characterization of plant genes is enabling
production of plants with higher nutritional
value and better resistance to disease," says Prof. Robert Fluhr of
Weizmann's Plant's Genetics Department. As with
new varieties of virus-resistant barley, herbicide-tolerant rice, cucumber,
melon and castor oil plants developed at
Weizmann, new transgenic plants will be shared with developing countries.
As well as sharing plant varieties and water systems initially developed
to meet its own needs, Israel also
creates comprehensive farming models for other countries. One of the most
successful is the African market garden,
developed at Ben-Gurion University.
``The African market garden is a production system for poor farmers with
few resources and little training,"
explains Prof. Dov Pasternak, head of Ben-Gurion University's Institute of
Agriculture & Applied Biology and
IPALAC, the International Program for Arid Land Crops established in 1994 by
an agreement between the
University and UNESCO. ``It mixes fruit trees and vegetables, and irrigates
them with a new low-pressure
drip-irrigation system, which is relatively low cost and simple to maintain.
An important component is introducing
date-palm seedlings, which we've propagated from tissue culture in Israel.
They're heat-loving and provide shade,
their fruit is high-calorie and can be eaten fresh or dried, and they command
high prices in local markets."
BGU experts have not only developed the model and seedlings, but are
also training African farmers in
Uganda and Ethiopia in low-pressure drip-irrigation, tree propagation, and
nursery management and running courses
for them in Israel on date palm cultivation. African market gardens have so
far been established in Mali, Niger and
For Israel, helping developing nations feed their populations is part of
its mission. In the words of Prof.
Avigad Vonshak, Head of BGU's Albert Katz International School for Desert
Studies, ``We believe the whole issue
of Israel as a scientific community is to help other nations the world over,
sharing with them our knowledge and
Return to top