95 Per Cent Science: Lessons For India From Israel’s Farms

Arihant Pawariya

Jun 05, 2017, 05:28 PM | Updated 05:28 PM IST

David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images
  • The story of Israel’s agricultural sector is near-miraculous. India can – and should – tweak that model to suit its local conditions.
  • Shimon Peres, who served both as Prime Minister and President of Israel, told the authors of Startup Nation in an interview that “Agriculture is 95 per cent science, five per cent hard work.” If they had asked an Indian politician, he would’ve probably said the exact opposite. Barring the one-time quantum leap after the agriculture revolution, India’s farm productivity has largely stagnated. Farmers keep doing the same things, expecting different results. The sector still banks heavily on monsoon. A nationwide web of canals irrigating the country’s fields remains a distant dream. Major parts of the country either face drought or flood every year thanks to non-existent water management. Technology on the farms is a rare sight. Agripreneurs are unheard of in the countryside.

    Comparing India with Israel is fraught with pitfalls given the astronomical differences in the size of arable land, total production, diversity and population of the two countries. Thus it is advisable only to compare some broad trends.

    Israel’s agricultural production multiplied 16-fold since independence compared to India’s five. Even if we take into account the base effect, Israel’s performance is impressive. Israel has doubled the land under cultivation while India has shown only marginal improvement. Israel’s agriculture basket is a healthy mix of field crops, floriculture, horticulture, vegetables, fisheries etc. India’s on the other hand is heavily skewed towards cereals, mainly wheat and rice. The Jewish nation employs less percentage of its workforce in agriculture but contributes more to the nation’s GDP in stark contrast to India.

    A deadly mix of the vicious cycle of poverty, lack of scientific outlook, risk-averse nature and poor policies has kept India’s agriculture backward and its farmers poor. Just to give an example, Israel has nationalised all water resources and it supplies water on demand at a price. In India, we pamper farmers with not only free water (a lot of which is wasted due to inefficient outdated irrigation methods) but subsidies on electricity, lucrative support prices for water guzzling crops and much more.

    Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a highly ambitious target to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. Let’s put this in perspective. Last time India achieved this feat, it took 22 years (1993-94 to 2015-16). NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, however, believes that Prime Minister Modi’s target may be improbable but not impossible. It is not the only one to think so.

    We only need to get our basics right. This is where Israel has achieved trailblazing success which we will do good to emulate.

    Watering their way to prosperity

    Judicious use of water has been central to Israel’s pathbreaking success in multiplying its agricultural productivity. It has executed four major projects so far.

    First, constructing the National Water Carrier (NWC). Eighty per cent of the country’s water was in the north (Sea of Galilee) while 65 per cent of the irrigable land was in the south. This necessitated laying an irrigation system bringing water from the north to thickly populated areas in the central region and arid areas in the south. National Water Carrier was thus born which can transport water to the tune of 1.7 million cubic metres a day.

    Second, the drip revolution. While NWC was necessary, it wasn’t sufficient. Israelis could achieve sufficiency only if they could find a way to use less water and still increase their agricultural output. That’s what Simcha Blass, the creator of drip irrigation systems did. He founded Netafim in 1965 which championed this new technique of irrigation that boosted crop yields by up to 50 per cent while using 40 per cent less water. More than 75 per cent of fields use this technology. And Israel’s farm productivity has risen by more than four times per unit area and by same number per cubic metre of water.

    In India, we still use the wasteful method of inundating the fields by sucking groundwater. Not only do millions of litres of water get wasted every year but water tables are also rapidly falling. And in drought years, we fight with our neighbouring states to release more water for water guzzling crops like sugarcane and rice.

    Farmers are slowly taking to the idea of drip irrigation but the pace of change is slow. This needs to be made a top priority. Without the drip method, “per drop more crop” will remain just a slogan.

    Third, Israel has mastered the science of recycling waste water. In 2000, Israel made it mandatory to instal dual-flush toilets which use half the water of the normal one. In 1959, it centralised control of each and every water resource in the country. Due to such efforts, it now recycles more than 80 per cent of its waste water and channels it for agricultural purposes. No country comes close. Spain with 25 per cent reusability is a distant second. Less said about India, the better.

    Fourth, Israel set up five desalination plants along the Mediterranean Sea which now supplies over 25 per cent of country’s water supply. Israeli companies are building such plants in foreign countries now. These plants can help us solve the perennial water problems of at least three of our top four metros: Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata, not to speak of the numerous second and third-tier cities that are flourishing along both the east and west coast.

    Ninety-Five Per Cent Science

    Apart from water, effective use of fertiliser is an important factor in growing better crops. Israel has developed local agro-technologies such as fertigation which supplies only required quantity of nutrients to plants. Our farmers still use their own hands to sprinkle fertilisers which is very harmful and inefficient. This ends up spoiling the soil as well as polluting the water.

    Israel is taking a lead in such kinds of precision methods of farming, also called “smart farming” which is heavily dependent on data. First they figure out exactly the kind of crops the soil is ideal for, the amount of seeds, fertilisers, irrigation, moisture level it needs, etc. Then with the help of automation, they irrigate the farms exactly the way they ought to be: with optimum use of water and fertilisers. Automation makes night irrigation feasible which means less use of water, thus less pumping hours, hence less electricity, which in turn means lower cultivation costs. In pulses, automation helps reduce seepage losses and runoff which translates into better use of water. Farmers thus save a lot of money as labour costs come down, given that irrigation and fertigation are now controlled by the installed system which automatically anticipates the needs of the soil and crop. Use of sensors helps farmers avoid excess irrigation in the event of rainfall. They could also detect the breakout of any disease and prevent standing crops from destruction.

    Learning from the Israel experience, many Indian farmers are leaving open field farming and are instead adopting poly houses and greenhouses where temperature and humidity are controlled and they can grow more profitable crops like flowers. Those who have made the transition to this form of “protective agriculture” have reportedly multiplied their profits five to 10 times. Poly houses and greenhouses are very expensive but state governments like Rajasthan and Haryana are nudging farmers to adopt these methods by giving them 60 to 70 per cent subsidy.

    The use of technology is perhaps most evident in milk production in both countries. Though India is a global leader in milk production, a cow here gives five to seven litres of milk on average, but in Israel this comes to around 36 to 40 litres! That’s five to six times more income.

    Bio-Bee, an Israeli company founded in a kibbutz (agricultural settlement) is a leader in biological pest control. It breeds harmless insects to neutralise deadly agricultural pests in the farms. This environment-friendly way of getting rid of pests obviates the need to use harmful fertilisers.

    Israel is able to stay ahead of others because it pumps millions of dollars in research and development (R&D) projects related to agriculture. India’s spending on agriculture R&D as percentage of GDP lags behind even countries such as Bangladesh. It speaks volumes of our failure that we couldn’t come up with as simple a product as GainPro Cocoons, a cheap and effective way to keep one’s harvest fresh. Our farmers leave their harvest in open fields or use primitive tarpaulins to cover it, which diminishes its value. Cocoons don’t let bugs in, not even air and water, thus keeping it farm-fresh.

    Cut and adapt

    Through MASHAV, the Agency for International Development Cooperation, and numerous centres of excellence throughout the country, the Jewish state is already helping Indian farmers by empowering them with best practices and technical knowhow (See accompanying article “Israel In Our Farms”). Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV, recently opined that “agriculture of the two pillars in India-Israel relations—definitely the main pillar from the civilian angle.” Israel’s export of its agricultural expertise is perhaps its biggest soft power asset.

    Israel’s population is less than the city of Bengaluru. So, there are obvious limitations in replicating the successes of the Israeli agriculture model. India is so diverse that even imposing one state’s model on another within the country may prove unhelpful. Hence, it is no one’s case that we should copy the Israeli model lock, stock and barrel. This is the reason one kept the discussion limited only to the areas that are universal in nature. We can tweak them to suit our local conditions. Israeli ambassador Daniel Carmon recently said that he doesn’t want India to cut and paste its farm technologies but want it to cut and adapt.

    Let’s not forget: agriculture is 95 per cent science. And science will work as well on Indian farms as it has on the Israeli ones.

    This article is a part of our special series on Israel.

    Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.

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