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Israeli reserve soldiers help farmers pick oranges in Moshav Beit Hillel, not far from the Israeli border with Lebanon, Nov. 10, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
Israeli reserve soldiers help farmers pick oranges in Moshav Beit Hillel, not far from the Israeli border with Lebanon, Nov. 10, 2023. Photo by Ayal Margolin/Flash90.
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‘Israel has to be much more food self-sufficient,’ expert warns

The Jewish state must make sweeping changes at the national and local levels to reduce its dependence on foreign imports amid heightened global uncertainty, says Ben-Gurion University professor Hendrik Bruins.

Since 1948, when the fledgling State of Israel celebrated its independence and began exporting and importing goods from other countries, it has become reliant on global trade. Now, as the Jewish state and it faces potential boycotts and sanctions, and trade routes threatened by terrorist factions, this dependence could have dire consequences.

Shipping prices have soared 461% since the ongoing attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen on ships in the Red Sea, which affects 12% of global trade. Rates on the Asia to North American routes have also climbed significantly. Shipping companies are adding security surcharges that can be as high as $2,700 per 40-foot container and have added weeks to each trip, reducing the global capacity for transporting cargo.

Agricultural experts are warning that if Israel does not make concerted efforts to become food secure, it may soon be facing shortages.

Growing concern

“Currently the shelves in the supermarkets are full,” said Yuval Lipkin, deputy director general of Israel’s Agriculture Ministry. “There are no shortages and we are proud of that.”

But he admits that with more than 90% of grains coming from Europe, a shortage of working hands in the fields and with border farms being evacuated in both the north and south since the Gaza war began, the ministry is concerned and is taking active steps to mitigate future shortages.

Local and national change needed

“Israel has to be much more self-sufficient than it is at the moment—and the problems must be addressed immediately,” stressed professor emeritus Hendrik Bruins of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva.

“It is very important that the Israeli administration, local as well as national, implement changes. When local government couldn’t depend on the army, community security patrols were set up. This should be the same for food,” he said.

“Israel now imports more than 90% of its basic food—grains and cereals. Famines are not caused by a lack of tomatoes, they are caused by a lack of grains, rice and maize [corn]. These have been the staple foods on all continents since time immemorial,” said Bruins. He noted that most countries tended to be self-sufficient up to the 1800s because of the limitations of trade back then.

‘Flowers don’t increase food security’

For many Middle Eastern countries, according to Bruins, Ukraine has always been an important wheat producer and a major supplier of grains.

“While we value our local eggs and milk,” he explained, “grains are necessary to feed our livestock—chickens and cows. If Israel becomes the target of an economic boycott, and grains are withheld, even our dairy and egg supplies could be affected.”

In the 1970s, Canada and the United States had large grain reserves that helped relieve famine conditions in many parts of the world, he explained. Political changes reduced the amount of grain in silos—they did away with food reserves and instead helped countries monetarily, he said. American farmers sold their products directly to countries, destroying local food economies and causing food dependence.

The problem of our dependence on foreign wheat is not new.

“Israel has had a problem for many years,” said Bruins. “North of Beersheva there are significant areas of land that can grow wheat if the government helped farmers grow wheat and lower our risk. Currently, 95% of Israel’s wheat is imported. If the farmer cannot make a living from growing wheat, he will grow flowers instead, but flowers don’t increase food security.”

‘Trade sounds nice as long as the world is nice’

The problem has been exacerbated by Israel’s war against Hamas.

“International trade sounds nice as long as the world is nice—but if the world is not behaving fairly, then it’s stupid to rely totally on an economy that relies on the free market as threats of boycotts rise,” said Bruins. There must be drastic changes in how local farmers are organized, he continued. “With enough workers, Israel could supply itself with fruit and vegetables.”

He also advised stockpiling wheat, saying a plan exists called the “Genesis Strategy,” based on the advice the biblical Patriarch Joseph gave Egypt to store grains in case of lean times ahead. Technological solutions have been implemented in other countries, such as Singapore, that include hydroponic, highly sophisticated, multi-level greenhouses and new ways of boosting the resilience of food supply, he said.

‘The main issue is manpower’

Yoel Zilberman is director and one of the founders of HaShomer HaChadash, an NGO that provides hands-on help to embattled Israeli farmers and ranchers who are seriously considering abandoning their land. The organization supports farmers and runs volunteer programs and training courses.

Pointing out that since Oct. 7 a severe manpower shortage has badly affected Israeli farmers, Zilberman said: “We need a confluence of talent, manpower and technology to fix the problems. According to a recent survey, only 44% of farmers displaced by the war in the south and north plan to return to their farms, and 89% of farmers lost foreign workers after Oct. 7.”

He further pointed out that agriculture used to be an integral part of the Israeli educational system. HaShomer HaChadash oversees four agricultural high schools in the Arava, Galilee, Golan and near Ashkelon, which are attended by 250 students—tomorrow’s farmers.

However, Amit Meir, director and founder of the four high schools, says that the average age of farmers in Israel is 65 and there are only 8,000 farmers left, down from 20,000 20 years ago. One hundred students graduate each year from the schools.

Agriculture Ministry Deputy Director General Lipkin asserted that his team is working hard along with other ministries to solve the problems. “The main issue is manpower. Even before the war, there was a shortage of 10,000 workers,” he told JNS in a recent interview.

“We recently signed a manpower contract with Sri Lanka, and we already have one with Thailand. We need 40,000 workers. We lost 10,000 foreign workers in the wake of Oct. 7. An additional 10-20,000 workers from the Palestinian Authority are not allowed in. We also need more Israeli workers and we are offering them bonuses to work in agriculture,” he said.

The Agriculture Ministry is also offering subsidies for upgrading agricultural buildings and formulating compensation packages for farmers.

“People understand how important the farmers are,” Zilberman added. “They are the ones that wake up every morning just a few meters away from our borders. Farmers are constantly keeping our borders safe—they know the lay of the land…. As the Book of Joshua says: ‘Every place you walk will be yours’—it’s not a one-time walk. Planting, weeding, maintaining, harvesting and developing farming routines allows us to keep the land.”

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