Israel has a long and proud history of innovation, from biblical times to the modern-day.
Dubbed the ‘startup nation,’ this technological powerhouse boasts more science-related startups per capita than any other nation on earth. Despite housing a mere 9 million inhabitants, its venture capital funding is second only to the United States.
And while world-changing innovations like the firewall, the USB flash drive and the PillCam (a capsule endoscopy) are among the most celebrated achievements, it’s Israel’s advanced Agricultural Technology that could be the key to a better world.
Dubbed “AgTech” or “agritech” by those in the know, this ever-evolving sector has revolutionized how we harvest, prepare, package, and distribute food. Israel sits at the forefront of the field and will continue finding innovative solutions to strengthen world food security—one of the most pressing problems facing the future of humanity.
In this article, we’ll delve into Israel’s agriculture history, examine how government policies have exacerbated its success, and outline some of the finest Israeli AgriTech enterprises and achievements.
“Israel is not a natural nor sensible place for agriculture”
Necessity is the mother of invention.
With a sparse arid landscape to call home, Israelis have always needed to find innovative new ways to cultivate crops. Some two-thirds of the nation classifies as arid or semi-arid, and much of the soil quality is poor. Natural water resources are scarce, and precipitation is virtually unheard of during the scorching summer months.
As vast distances separate Israel from other vital agricultural markets, its people have long been left to fend for their own.
From early farming practices to the high-tech solutions of the modern age, Israel has undertaken a tremendous agricultural transformation to become a world leader in the field. And in the process, it has fortified national food security, established lucrative export markets, and revolutionized agriculture and water management on a global scale.
History of Agriculture in Israel
A great deal of Israeli’s agricultural success is tied to its history.
From the beginning, Biblical influences, evolving ideologies, and government initiatives have shaped Israel’s agricultural transformation. To understand how the miracle of Israeli agriculture technology has become a modern-day reality, we must first delve into the past.
Biblical Agriculture in Israel
The Jewish people have had strong ties to agriculture since Biblical times.
Tiling the ground and rearing cattle were everyday tasks in the ancient era. Upon gaining possession of the Promised Land, the Israelites excelled at the art of agriculture and made it the basis of their society and religion.
The Jewish lunisolar calendar is inextricably linked to the land. Major festivals and events coincide with the first fruits of the season, while six key agricultural periods divide the year. For six months, from the middle of Tishrei to halfway through Nisan, early Israelites focused their efforts on cultivation and spent the remainder harvesting fruits.
Irrigation from mountainous streams enriched the soil, and the application of manure fertilized crops. In the days of Solomon, some 20,000 measures of wheat were shipped to Hiram in exchange for timber, while the Tyrians traded grain for wares. Figs, pomegranates, grapes, and olives were all abundant in Biblical times.
Numerous verses in the Bible govern early Israeli agriculture, ensuring crops could be shared fairly among those most in need. Here we present two examples:
- A passerby was at liberty to eat any quantity of corn or grapes, but he was not permitted to carry away any (Deuteronomy 23:24-25; Matthew 12:1).
- A forgotten sheaf in the field was to be left also for the poor. (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19.)
The Zionist Movement
An extended period of diaspora saw Israel’s agricultural identity diminish. With the Jewish people spread over the globe, traditional farming practices were at risk of being forgotten.
However, in the late 19th century, a re-emergence occurred with the modern Zionist movement of Central and Eastern Europe. Socialist influences from Russia helped re-establish the Land of Israel as a Jewish nation with farming at the forefront and agricultural excellence as a national mission.
Inspired by the Zionist movement, young European immigrants came to cultivate the land, a monumental task fraught with hardship. Diseases such as typhoid, malaria, and cholera were rampant, causing many to succumb to an early demise. The terrain was equally unforgiving—the Judaean Mountains were rugged and rocky, the upper Jordan Valley a treacherous swamp, and the entire south a barren, desert-like wasteland.
Work began on constructing terraces, clearing rocky fields, cleansing salty soil, draining swamplands, and widespread re-forestation. Despite having minimal agricultural experience, a strong commitment to ideology and extreme perseverance saw these early pioneers redefine the inhospitable landscape.
The Emergence of the Kibbutzim and Moshavim
Establishing farmlands across such vast and forbidding terrain required enormous capital. Inspired by socialist Zionist philosophies, the agricultural pioneers of the early 20th century devised a framework to obtain the necessary resources: farming co-operatives known as the kibbutz.
These egalitarian institutions adhered to a communal ideology and aspired to become fully self-sufficient. A central governing body pooled resources from every member, each of whom was entitled to equal compensation regardless of profession. A centralized, future-focused planning system helped overcome hardship by defining which farmers could grow what crops and where.
In the same era, Labour Zionists devised a similar system known as the moshav, which emphasized community labor. Each moshavnik family maintained its own property and tended to its own fields, undertaking the commercialization of produce in a co-operative approach.
Both systems were fundamental to the history of agriculture in Israel, forming tight-knit rural communities focused on equality and cooperation. And each remains at the forefront today—together, they account for 76% of the nation’s fresh food output.
Upon achieving independence in 1948, Israel inherited a sophisticated system of infrastructure from Britain. A high-quality railway and road system enabled Israelis to transport produce around the country with great speed and efficiency.
Former British networks also played a crucial role. The Empire Marketing Board, for example, gave Israel a platform to export produce throughout the Commonwealth.
Established in 1929, the Citrus Board proved particularly pivotal in expanding Israel’s citrus fruit market. Local co-operatives grew large quantities of fruit through irrigated orchids and sold it to the Board, who would then export the produce to Britain and beyond. By the 1930s, the tiny nation of Israel had become the fourth largest citrus fruit exporter in the world.
The British Empire also left a robust medical and educational system, with a life expectancy some 20 years higher than the regional average. Despite many immigrants lacking agricultural experience, the highly educated Israeli populous had the expertise to succeed.
An Unwavering Government Commitment To Agriculture
The Israeli government has held a steadfast commitment to developing the agricultural industry from day one, an approach fundamental to the country’s success.
For the first few decades after independence, around one-third of Israel’s parliamentary members came from kibbutz or moshav communities. Top-level government decision-makers embraced the ideology of promoting agriculture as a national mission.
The Labor Party, which represents farmers and workers, held power for almost 30 years (1948 to 1970) and worked tirelessly to promote agricultural interests. Even the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a former farmer, as was approximately half of his cabinet.
In the 1950s and 60s, Ben-Gurion allocated a whopping 30% of his national budget towards agriculture and water infrastructure. One project of particular importance was a 250 km pipeline from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert, bringing much-needed water to the settlements of the arid region. Enormous sums of money were thrown into farming and agricultural research, further transforming the southern deserts into fertile agricultural lands.
Ben-Gurion’s government later institutionalized the Citrus Board, effectively giving it exclusive control of the industry. It was a controversial move at the time, but the gamble paid off. Exports rose to 1 million tons by 1967, accounting for 95% of Israel’s entire export market.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Ministry of Agriculture ran an agriculture investment grant program, handing out vast sums of cash for greenhouse, land preparation, and farming initiatives. In the same era, the government made more large-scale investments in electrical, transport, and logistics infrastructure. Water reservoirs and road networks followed, allowing struggling farmers to flourish.
In the 1970s, the Israeli government assigned a portion of the country to grow vegetables. Market research found these had excellent export potential, and the program became a resounding success.
Israeli politicians made shrewd decisions to invest in upcoming subsectors and divest away from weaker ones. Funding was cut from floriculture, for example, when cheap Kenyan labor made local production unviable—the shekels shifted towards more profitable products like vegetables and tree crops instead.
The Israeli government’s unwavering commitment to developing its agriculture sector continues into the modern era. In the 1990s, Prime Minister Shimon Peres prioritized promoting Israeli produce on the world stage. Later, in 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon increased funding to the water sector substantially. His large scale construction of desalination plants and aquifers in the 2000s became fundamental to the success of the sector today.
A World Leader In Research and Development
Although history and governance have been fundamental to Israel’s agricultural prowess, one mustn’t discount the role of research and development.
Israel has invested massively over the years into the state-run Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani Center. Its goal is to serve the farmer and the industry as a whole, developing cutting edge technologies to solve real-world issues.
Some 200 Volcani scientists, who receive generous salary packages to attract the brightest in the field, are evaluated on how applicable their research is to the industry. Scientists work closely with farmers to develop innovative solutions to pressing real-world problems, and there’s an omnipresent focus on applied research. The Volcani Center has established bespoke research projects to resolve everything from optimizing jojoba farming practices to engineering unsweetened varieties of dates.
The six core research disciplines at the Volcani Center are:
- Plant sciences
- Soil and water
- Plant protection
- Animal sciences
- Agricultural engineering
In 2015, it launched the Gilat Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Agricultural Research to find solutions for Israel’s limited water resources in the face of climate change. Agriculture in arid conditions, reversing desertification, wastewater irrigation, and freshwater aquaculture are among its core objectives. The center also develops new crop strains and genetically modified animals that can better adapt to the hostile climates of the future.
The Volcani Center’s research and development initiatives have enabled Israelis to grow crops in the desert by turning once inhospitable landscapes into verdant breadbaskets. And it will continue seeking new technology solutions for the agricultural industry in the face of climate change.
Israeli Enterprises In The Agriculture Technology Field
We’ve examined how government initiatives have bolstered Israel’s agricultural prowess—but what about the private sector?
The highly entrepreneurial nation of Israel is awash with private enterprises that have a keen interest in Agriculture Technology (AgTech). Considered a nascent industry not long ago, the AgTech sector is now buzzing with opportunity. Offshoots such as Food Tech and Water Tech, in particular, have been garnering impressive investments in recent years.
Israel’s meteoric rise in these upcoming industries can largely be attributed to two factors.
First, Israel is a traditional hub for technological innovation. The density of startups in Israel is on par with the San Francisco Bay Area—the country has a high proportion of patents per capita and scores of developers vying for the attention of tech-savvy investors. Israelis are a creative bunch—the national dish of cuscus came about due to a drop in rice availability.
Second, Israel already has extensive experience in the agritech sector. Government agricultural grants get handed out willy-nilly, and research and development comes part of the national psyche. Meanwhile, a precarious geopolitical situation prompts Israelis to develop more self-sufficient farming practices, while its harsh environment turns the focus towards food and water security.
Every three years, the country hosts Agritech Israel, an international agriculture technology exhibition that attracts thousands of delegates from dozens of countries worldwide. Desertification, water deficiency, climate change and extreme weather are common topics of discussion, and participants range from government entities to entrepreneurs, investors, farmers, and researchers. The next conference is planned to take place in Tel Aviv in May 2021 , COVID-19 permitting.
Investment In AgTech In Israel
Israeli food AgTech startups acquired a collective $103 million in equity investment back in 2018, on par with larger nations like Australia and India.
Some 350 AgTech startups entered the fray in the last decade, with an average of 37 new startups each year since 2014. Startup Nation Finder reports there are currently over 400 AgTech startups in Israel, collectively raising $300 million in 2019.
The growing trend points towards an industry-wide resurgence driven by robust global demand for clean, efficient, and sustainable technology. With a well-established reputation for excellence in fields like robotics, science, AI, and software, it’s little wonder Israeli startups have bitten into a generous slice of the food tech pie.
And the demand for these technologies is only set to skyrocket with the onset of climate change. Rising temperatures and accelerated desertification will put tremendous strain on the world’s food and water supply. In the future, AgTech could become among the most important industries on earth.
The Top Food Tech Start-Ups In Israel
While food tech was once constrained to dehydrated hiking rations and decaffeinated iced mochas, it’s come a long way since then. Exciting fields like stem-cell research, tissue engineering, cellular agriculture, and nanotechnology are promising to revolutionize the multi-billion dollar food industry, offering compelling solutions for our food security woes.
With proven prowess in technological innovation, Israeli startups are tempting investors and policymakers with a dizzying array of ideas. And to give you a taste of what Israeli food-tech startups are cooking, we’ve compiled a list of the leading players in the market today.
Hargol began exporting its grasshopper-infused protein powder to North America in 2017; it sources the mineral-rich insect from a commercial-grade farm in Israel. Insect farming is significantly more sustainable than livestock rearing, and the company is continuing to find new ways to optimize the process.
Hinoman develops a different source of environmentally-friendly protein: Mankai. This duckweed whole leaf superfood contains 45% protein and is the only plant in the world to contain iron, vitamin B, and all nine essential amino acids.
Tastewise draws upon an enormous data set to provide insight and analysis on food trends. The powerful prediction software uses state of the art algorithms and sources data from restaurant menus, social media, and online recipes.
Future Meat Technologies
Future Meat Technologies is an industry leader in tissue engineering and cellular agriculture. The company recently received a $14 million grant and intends to open the world’s first cultured meat production factory in Tel Aviv soon.
InnovoPro develops a range of delicious and sustainable food products made from a ubiquitous Israeli staple: chickpeas. These nutritious creations are packed full of protein and are intended to substitute dairy and meat, thus reducing global reliance on the unsustainable livestock industry.
TIPA Corp is working on biodegradable packaging for the food and beverage industry, aiming to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill. The eco-friendly packaging has a protective layer that decomposes in the earth without leaving behind toxic residue or microplastics.
Infarm develops modular smart farms that incorporate artificial intelligence to grow fresh vegetables in urban areas like restaurants and residences. The company aims to cut down our reliance on transport in the agriculture sector, thus reducing CO2 emissions.
DouxMatok has developed a sugar reduction solution designed to retain the taste, texture, and appearance of the real thing. This healthy alternative has been given the tick of approval in numerous blind taste tests and is backed by over 20 patents.
CropX has developed an adaptive irrigation service to optimize the watering process. The AgTech analytics company incorporates machine learning, big data, and cloud-based software to enhance agricultural output in soil.
Taranis provide submillimeter resolution aerial imagery and in-depth technical analysis to help farmers better manage their fields. A broad data spectrum permits informed decision-making at the most critical growth stages of the season.
Prospera uses artificial intelligence to analyze the multi-layers of farm data to monitor and predict crop development. The computer vision technology optimizes agriculture efficiency and enhances seasonal yields.
How Israeli Technology Is Overcoming the Water Crisis
Israel doesn’t receive much rain—its annual average precipitation of just 550 mm mostly falls in the north during the wetter winter months. In the sparse arid regions of the south, you’d be lucky to get a single drop of rain throughout an entire summer.
The environment is only getting more inhospitable, too. As the effects of climate change creep in, the rainy season is dwindling, and much of what falls gets lost to run off.
Yet residents, farmers, factory workers, and business owners enjoy a steady stream of potable water every time they turn on the tap. Even during periods of intense drought, some of Israel’s formerly barren deserts now bloom with luscious crops.
So how has the Israeli government secured a constant stream of water for its people despite the bone-dry climate?
By investing vast sums of capital and brainpower into devising high tech solutions for its limited water resources. Israel’s public water utility company, the Mekorot Group, has focused heavily on seawater desalination and wastewater reclamation since 2005.
With natural freshwater reserves few and far between, desalination has been the key to topping up urban supplies.
Up to 80% of Israel’s municipal water—the exact figure fluctuates depending on the season and demand—comes from a slew of desalination plants that line the Mediterranean Sea. The most impressive of these is Sorek, a 100,000 square meter behemoth that pumps out 624,000 cubic meters of water each day. It’s the largest desalination facility on earth and the pride and joy of IDE Technologies, a homegrown company that’s now a world leader in the field.
The Mekorot Group is responsible for pumping these vast quantities of water to the public, which first go through rigorous quality control—essential vitamins and minerals get added in the final stage. Costing about 55c per cubic meter, it’s significantly more expensive than freshwater extraction (about 10c per cubic meter). But it’s a necessary step nonetheless as freshwater supplies continue to dwindle and water scarcity will become dire in the not so distant future.
IDE Technologies have refined the desalination process to cost about 1/6 of the global average, giving Israel a viable future in a water-scarce world.
Wastewater reclamation means recycling what flows down the drain, offering an environmentally friendly and cost-effective solution for agriculture and industry.
More than 150 wastewater plants supply 31% of the irrigation water used in the country. A further 45 plants treat brackish water to supply agriculture and industry.
The largest facility is Shafdan, which spans a whopping 250 acres and recycles 90% more water than any other plant. Although the reclaimed water is almost good enough to drink, it’s pumped into the farms of Negev to irrigate crops.
The Top Water Tech Companies In Israel
While the government is bringing an abundance of fresh water to the arid state of Israel, there’s been a considerable contribution from the private sector as well.
A well-established tech industry and an on-going demand for innovative management solutions have put Israel at the forefront of the water tech sector—some refer to Israel as the Silicon Valley of water technology. And these innovations aren’t only destined for domestic use—Israel exports its cutting edge water tech to help other countries resolve their issues.
Although it’s a public enterprise, no list of Israeli water tech entities would be complete without mention of the Mekorot Group, the state water utility board. Mekorot supplies 90% of Israel’s drinking water, and its R&D department boasts impressive achievements in desalination, cloud seeding, water reclamation, and more.
The Arad Group is a world leader in precision water meter technology—the kibbutz-owned company exports its wares to water management companies worldwide. Arad designs, develops, and manufactures its meters in-house and is currently working on a new project that uses drones to identify leaks from the sky.
Netafim is the world leader in drip irrigation, offering a wide array of products and services to help farmers make the most of limited water supplies. A strong background in agronomic practices allows the company to provide smart irrigation solutions for Israel and the developing world.
Did you know? Drip irrigation was invented in Israel when Simcha Blass noticed a tree blooming in the arid Jordan Valley. Upon digging up its roots, he found a leaky coupler had been drip-feeding the tree with remarkable efficiency.
IDE Technologies has constructed over 400 desalination plants worldwide, making it a global leader in the field. The company currently operates the world’s largest desalination plant in the Israeli town of Ashkelon and is planning to build an even bigger one in Soreq. It also dabbles in wastewater treatment and snowmaking facilities.
Amiad Filtration Systems
Amiad Filtration Systems creates advanced chemical and polymer-free filtration systems for the international market. These ultra-efficient products are sold on every continent in the world, including Antarctica. It also provides bespoke solutions for the automotive industry and offshore installations.
Tahal Consulting Engineers
Tahal Consulting Engineers is Israel’s largest water tech consulting firm, boasting a close working relationship with big-name entities like the United Nations and the World Bank. The firm has been working with private and government bodies since 1961 and specializes in water resource management, sewage and sanitation, environmental protection, and agricultural development.
Bermad is an expert in pipes and control-valve technology, exporting irrigation systems, micro-jets, sprinklers, and greenhouse irrigation to consumers worldwide. Clients include waterworks plants, power stations, and high-rise buildings—Bermad played a pivotal role in bringing snow to the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Global Environmental Solutions
Global Environmental Solutions designs wastewater facilities for agriculture, urban, and industrial use. Created by a merger with three sizable Israeli water companies, the massive mega-corporation also offers solutions for the manufacturing industry, government agencies, and chemical factories.
Arkal is rapidly becoming an industry leader in the water filtration field, obtaining lucrative contracts with countries like Turkey, Argentina, and Spain. Plastic plants, fisheries, and aquaculture are among other areas of expertise, while its patented sprinkler systems have shown great success in optimizing irrigation.
Miya is an ambitious $100 million initiative aiming to resolve urban water loss in Israel and around the world. The group is currently acquiring a stable of consultants to develop innovative solutions for leaking pipes and other water waste causes.
Originally posted at sareltours.com