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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

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.
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.

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 arid-zone cultivation.

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 Egypt.

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 Ethiopia.

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 experience.''

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