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The Year of Interruption: Israel’s Agricultural Revolution

By Randy Pinsky

With the Jewish holidays coming up, many are reflecting on the past year and contemplating on improvements for the new one. Particularly powerful is the fact that 2021-22 has been a Sh’mitah year; the culmination of the 7-year cycle in which Israel leaves the land fallow.

Beyond letting the land naturally regenerate, this is an ideal time to critically re-evaluate current agricultural practices. With world temperatures rising, populations straining available resources, and water scarcity being the source of most conflicts (“many say that the next major war will not be for territory but for water” (Israel: The Developing World's Water Technology Savior?)), it is more crucial than ever to discuss alternatives.

On February 15, 2021, Avi Jorisch spoke about his book Thou Shalt Innovate” (available in our reading room!) at the Azrieli Institute, describing some Israeli agro-technologies that are (literally) saving the world. 

The Shabbat of the Land

Shabbat is the day in which the hustle and bustle of life temporarily ceases, allowing one to re-emerge stronger and rested.

And it is the same for land. The Torah recounts how the people of Israel were commanded to let the fields go fallow every seven years as a reminder that the land is holy and commonly shared; not just an infinite resource to use for their needs.

Whatever is grown that year cannot be harvested, but rather is shared with all, prompting a discussion about the right to food. “Everyone is talking about social justice and bridging gaps between poor and rich,” commented an Israeli wine producer, “and here we have something every seven years where there is no rich and no poor; everyone is equal” (Israel 21c).

Recalibrating Our Approach to Food

While the Sh’mitah year is a critical means of reconnecting with the land and with tradition, it also provokes a rethinking of global environmental problems (World Jewish Congress).

In their video, “Release. Rethink. Renew,” New York’s B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue explains how the year of interruption provides the ideal “opportunity to transform our worldview; the way we think and the way we live. Our relationship to the natural world, to time, to one another and to society at large.”

Indeed, there is no longer any doubt that our current way of life is not sustainable. Our preoccupation on maximizing yield is outweighing existing resources, resulting in greater disparities, political instability, and refugee crises (Israel 21C). The Sh’mitah mentality challenges us to stop the constant pursuit for production, and evaluate possible alternatives. 

A Global Shortage of Water

When much of the world is struggling with a lack of drinkable water, it is unconscionable that a full 70% of all freshwater is allocated to crop irrigation (Behold Israel). With the slogan “More Crop Per Drop”, Israeli agro-tech firm Tal-Ya (“dew of G-d”) has developed technologies that collect dew and water normally lost through evaporation (Israel 21C); essentially, “harvesting water from the air” (Israel Science Info).

Due to its dry and arid climate, Israel has long made use of groundwater, desalination, treating sewage water, and using smart technologies to identify leaky pipes; a huge source of water wastage (Thou Shalt Innovate). Pipe leakage in Western Europe is 20-30% and an astonishing 50% in Cairo, Egypt, compared to 9-10% in Israel, second only to Singapore (The Secret of Israel's Water Miracle and How It can Help a Thirsty World).

While shutting the tap while you are brushing your teeth is important, if you truly want to save water in a big way, notes the CEO of Israeli water firm SupPlant, “you need to change the way irrigation is done- and this is what we are doing” (Behold Israel). 

“Make Each Drop Count”

Israel was where they ‘made the desert bloom’, and water-saving innovations were developed out of necessity. “We know what it’s like to farm in extreme conditions,” states Netafim (Hebrew for “droplets”), developers of Israel’s iconic drip irrigation technology.

The story goes that Polish-Israeli immigrant Simcha Blass was wandering in the Negev desert in 1959, and was surprised to find one tree flourishing more than its neighbors. Upon investigation, he found the answer to be a cracked underground water pipe (Hasbara).

Thus developed the innovation Israel is most known for: drip irrigation. More than just perforated hoses snaking around crops, the technology involves complex sensors which evaluate and distribute precise amounts of water and nutrients directly to the plant roots. As a result, the massive amounts of water lost through evaporation and topsoil erosion from traditional sprinkler systems is avoided.

Since its development in 1965, drip irrigation technology has been exported to over 110 countries, saving billions of gallons of water, and resulting in healthier and greater produce (Times of Israel). The “global leader in smart irrigation solutions,” Netafim has assisted communities worldwide to use their resources more efficiently and ‘Grow More With Less’ (Beyond The Headlines). In India alone, Netafim is credited with helping increase productivity by 40-50% and saving over 50% of water from conventional agricultural practices.

As a result, it is “lifting people out of poverty and conserving water at a time when the importance of doing so has never been clearer” (Selling the Desert's Water-Conservation Lessons to the Rest of the World). 

“Switch to Drip”

One of the newest developments in drip irrigation is…rice paddies!

Grown for thousands of years in flooded fields, paddies use an enormous amount of water but are also a natural producer of arsenic and greenhouse gas emissions.

According to The Times of Israel, rice-flooded fields “consume 30 to 40 percent of the world’s freshwater and generate more than 10% of the planet’s human-caused climate warming methane.” To put it in perspective, this is “equivalent to the carbon footprint of the entire aviation industry for one day, or of 400 million cars over a year,” stated Roei Yonai, head of Netafim’s crops and agricultural sustainability division, and leader of its rice initiative. Israel’s drip irrigation thus can have an enormous impact on reducing carbon pollution and heavy metal absorption. 

Sh’mitah Mindset

Just because something has been done in a certain manner (centuries of rice being produced in flooded fields as an example), does not mean it needs to - and in some situations, even can - continue that way.

The world needs this year of interruption: what will you do with it? 

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