Feeding the World: Agricultural Research & Development in Israel

Thursday, February 14, 2013 11:04 AM

Australian science writer Dr. Elizabeth Finkel visits KKL-JNF agricultural projects in Israel, as part of her research for her upcoming book on feeding the world in the future.

L-R: Gadi Haber, Dr. Avi Gafni & Dr. Elizabeth Finkel. Photo: Gabi Bron

The agricultural research and development conducted in Israel by KKL-JNF’s R & D stations and the Israeli agricultural economy as a whole can serve as a shining example to the rest of the world.
That’s the way it seems when we listen to what Dr. Elizabeth Finkel, a science writer based in Melbourne, Australia, has to say about the reasons for her most recent visit to Israel.
“The world needs to feed a population of nine billion in the next fifty years with diminishing water and arable land and higher temperatures.  Obviously there are lessons to learn from Israel which has turned its deserts into agricultural powerhouses.  I’ve come for a study tour to explore what those lessons are.”
Israeli agriculture and genetic engineering

Dr. Elizabeth Finkel. Photo: Gabi Bron

Dr. Finkel has a background in biochemistry and genetics, and spent seven years as a research scientist before switching to journalism. She has written two popular science books and is an associate editor at the Australian scientific publication Cosmos. She and her husband Alan, who is Chancellor of Melbourne’s Monash University, are among KKL-JNF’s keenest supporters in Australia. Dr. Finkel's current visit has enabled her to observe firsthand the benefits of the enormous personal and collective contribution that Friends of JNF Australia have made to the innovative and progressive Israeli agriculture she so admires. “I don’t think it’s just a matter of advanced technologies.  Israel’s vibrant “start-up” spirit is evident in its agriculture. I was mightily impressed to find that 2,400 students are studying farming-related sciences at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot. By contrast throughout the whole of Australia, only around 700 students are studying agriculture.  And the average age of Australian farmers is 60.  Israel seems to be getting something very right where farming is concerned.”  

Constructed wetlands – clean water for the rivers

Wetlands in Hod HaSharon. Photo: Gabi Bron

Together with Gadi Haber from KKL-JNF’s Australian Desk, we joined Dr. Finkel on a KKL-JNF tour under the professional guidance of Dr. Avi Gafni, formerly a senior KKL-JNF scientist. We began by visiting the constructed wetlands in Hod HaSharon, a site that consists of three pools in which the sewage water of Hod HaSharon and Kfar Sava is filtered and purified by natural means to a standard that allows it to be released into the Kaneh and Yarkon rivers. This system of pools is the final stage of the cleansing process that begins at the municipal sewage reclamation plants. The final biological purification is achieved by channeling the water through the constructed wetlands, which contain a variety of plants whose roots host different species of bacteria that break down harmful substances in the water. The wetland retains the resulting sediment of organic and chemical materials, while the filtered water that flows from it into the rivers, though not fit for drinking, is free of environmentally unfriendly pollutants. The wetland environs are now in the process of being landscaped, and paths are being added in order to transform the whole area into a green belt and an attractive venue for both local residents and visitors from afar.
The constructed wetlands are just one example of the planning and financial efforts invested over the past few years in attempts to exploit the State of Israel’s limited water resources to the utmost. The cornerstone of this effort has been KKL-JNF’s creation of 240 water reservoirs all over the country, with the help and support of its Friends worldwide and the cooperation of the relevant local and regional councils. Thanks to these reservoirs, over 80% of Israel’s reclaimed sewage water is now recycled for both agricultural use and the rehabilitation of rivers that have suffered from prolonged pollution since their natural sources were expropriated for drinking water. Reclaimed water from these KKL-JNF reservoirs now provides for around half of Israel’s agricultural water consumption.  

The biofilter: An innovative rainwater utilization experiment

The biofilter in Kfar Sava. Photo: Gabi Bron

The Finkel family has a history of supporting KKL water treatment projects, and recently they have made a significant contribution to another cutting-edge project that has been in operation for two years in northern Kfar Sava. This is the Biofilter Project, which collects and utilizes some of the large quantities of rainwater that flow from the city streets into the drainage network and from there to the sea.
The experimental biofilter project in Kfar Sava was established under the supervision of Dr. Yaron Zinger, who wrote his doctoral thesis at Monash University on this topic. The amphitheater-like construction adjacent to a new residential neighborhood in northern Kfar Sava takes in the runoff water from the city’s northern suburbs and channels it into a pool planted with five types of specially selected plants known to host nitrogen-eating bacteria that break down various chemicals and thus play a vital role in the water purification process.

Getting acquainted with the biofilter technology. Photo: Gabi Bron

The rainwater collected from the streets contains traces of fuel, oil, heavy metals and a variety of carbon and nitrogen compounds. This water, unlike that produced by the Hod HaSharon constructed wetlands, is not released into the rivers, but into wells that have fallen into disuse because of high salinity or nitrate levels. Unlike the constructed wetlands, which absorb water from the municipal sewage reclamation plant all year round, the Kfar Sava biofilter is dependent on the vagaries of rainfall. As the system needs to remain wet even in the absence of rain, it has been made dual-purpose: when there is no rain for it to absorb, nitrate-polluted water is pumped from the disused wells, filtered through the system, then returned to the well cleansed of a significant portion of the nitrates that prevent its use as drinking water. This is a cumulative process that, within a few years, may well enable these disused wells to be brought back into service. Recently, in a joint venture between KKL-JNF, the Technion and Melbourne’s Monash University, a start was made on planning a larger biofilter system for the municipalities of Bat Yam and Ramla.
Dr. Finkel showed great interest in all the functional details of the system, which already produces several thousand cubic meters of water every winter (i.e., in the rainy season). Although the project still faces problems, once these are solved this experimental system’s output could increase several times over. In the meantime, plans are underway to expand the Kfar Sava system, which has brightened the urban landscape with a pleasant green oasis that, when completed, will provide a recreational venue for residents of the nearby neighborhoods. 

Reservoirs and water reclamation plants – helping agriculture and the environment

Yad Hanna Water Reclamation Plant. Photo: Gabi Bron

The tour took us next to two vital installations on the borders of the fertile Hefer Valley (Emek Hefer), each of which benefits both agriculture and the environment. The first is the water purification plant adjacent to Kibbutz Yad Hanna, which was established as an emergency measure to stop the flow of Nablus and Tulkarem effluent from the Nablus River into the Alexander River. This small water reclamation plant, whose infrastructure was installed by KKL-JNF at lightning speed, is one of Israel’s successful joint projects with the Palestinian Authority, and it also enjoys significant moral and financial support from the German government.
Today, eight years after its inception, this modest facility still constitutes the only barrier against the raw sewage that continues to flow from the Palestinian Authority down the rivers to the Mediterranean Sea. Dozens of ducks swim in the waters of its large oxygenation pool – living proof that the plant’s purification processes are working as they should. The reclaimed water is channeled onward to one of the three large reservoirs established by KKL-JNF in the east of the Hefer Valley, the largest of which is the Bahan Reservoir, which, when full, holds 4.5 million cubic meters of water ready and waiting for agricultural use.   

Dr. Finkel in front of donor recongition plaques at the Bahan Reservoir. Photo: Gabi Bron

The second water installation visited was the Bahan Reservoir, which absorbs reclaimed sewage water from Netanya and the Hefer Valley communities, which, when pumped out, irrigates hundreds of thousands of dunams of land on which a variety of crops are grown. Zvi Garber, Manager of the Hefer Valley Water Association, told Dr. Finkel of the enormous benefits this reclaimed water brings to local agriculture: the water supply is regular and reliable, and its low price helps to keep production costs down.
During her visit to Israel, Dr. Finkel held a series of meetings with senior scientists at the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research, the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture and the Weizmann Institute of Science. She also visited KKL-JNF’s Applied Agricultural Research and Development Stations in the Negev and even Kibbutz Hatzerim’s Netafim factory, which manufactures drip irrigation systems. “We went into the kibbutz, which looked laid-back, leafy and rural,” she said afterwards. “At first, I wasn’t all that excited about seeing a drip irrigation factory. Then we went into the factory, and for two minutes I just stood there with my mouth hanging open, watching those complex robots manufacturing these futuristic irrigation systems.” 
It is this future that Dr. Finkel wants to write about in her book, which will probably be entitled “How to Feed Ten Billion.” “My approach to book writing is to find engaging stories.” she said. “Clearly one can’t tell the story of Israeli agriculture without telling the story of the kibbutz and moshav, and KKL–JNF.”