Farm researchers seeking new crops

Israeli agriculture needs crops that can thrive in a desert environment with low levels of irrigation.Dr. Yosef Mizrahi, of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a plant physiologist, not an economist. Yet Mizrahi feels that understanding the realties of …

Israeli agriculture needs crops that can thrive in a desert environment with low levels of irrigation.Dr. Yosef Mizrahi, of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a plant physiologist, not an economist. Yet Mizrahi feels that understanding the realties of the new global economy is imperative when discussing agriculture. Mizrahi offers up the analogy of Israel’s citrus industry, once among the strongest in the world, that now ranks behind high-tech products, service equipment, and flowers among Israel’s exports.

“It used to be, as recently as twenty-five years ago, that if you owned a citrus field, then generations of your family were set for life,” Mizrahi said. “That no longer is true.”

What happened? According to Mizrahi, globalization squashed Israel’s once vibrant and famed citrus industry. The Jaffa orange, world-renowned for it juiciness, has fallen prey to oranges that are cheaper to produce in other countries. The labor required to pick oranges costs about $40 per day per person, Mizrahi said, while the same labor in Morocco would cost around a dollar.

Further complicating issues is that Israel’s tax rates are among the highest in the world, and hence the resources required to grow the produce is equally as expensive. The professor, in a recent interview during a Northern California lecture series, said California farmers have a huge advantage over farmers in Israel. In California, water is subsidized by the state, so farmers pay solely for the expense of pumping the water, not the water itself. Not so in Israel, where fresh water is scare, unsubsidized, and therefore quite expensive.

The 61-year-old professor knows first-hand the perils of the new economy, having spent quite a few years developing hybrid tomatoes with an extremely long shelf life, only to find them out-sold by tomatoes that were produced more cheaply in other parts of the world.

“What was I supposed to do, give up?” Mizrahi asked. “That was impossible, because agriculture is one of the three biggest components to Israel’s economy, along with industry and tourism. There had to be a better way.”

Given those circumstances, Mizrahi has dedicated the better part of two decades to figuring out a method for revitalizing Israel’s increasingly moribund agricultural economy. Standard cash crops, such as wheat, corn, barley, citrus, and vegetables, which have largely sustained Israel during the past five decades, are faltering because they can be produced more cheaply elsewhere.

The solution could be fruits such as marula, koubo, and pittaya. If those names don’t exactly ring a bell now, then Mizrahi has succeeded. If they don’t prompt a glint of recognition in five or ten years, Mizrahi will be considerably less-enthused. The fruits are transplants of wild vegetation that Mizrahi has scoured the world for – plants he hopes will not only bolster Israel’s economy but lessen the toll on the country’s ecosystem as well.

Among the 4,000 wild plants Mizrahi imported from different parts of the world (including Zimbabwe, Colombia, Panama, and Australia), many grow on cacti, a fact that is crucial considering Israel’s topography. Cacti, which can withstand the harsh desert climates prevalent throughout Israel and the Middle East, require only one-tenth the water of other plants, an invaluable asset is a region with a shortage of fresh water. The pittaya (which originates from Latin America and parts of Asia, where it’s known as the “dragon pearl fruit,”) is a cactus fruit, and comes in three different varieties. The koubo, smaller in size, and hailing from African regions, is also a cactus plant.

Although the marula, perhaps Mizrahi’s most promising fruit, is not a cactus plant, it too has a less-damaging effect on the environment than other crops. The marula can withstand water that contains salinity levels of up to 25 percent, Mizrahi said. The marula, which falls on the ground before ripening, is also very easy to collect, saving on labor costs. The fruit, which is loaded with Vitamin C, is squeezed to the bursting point, at which point one sucks the juice out with a straw. Mizrahi said the fruit would make excellent lunchtime snacks for children, or as substitutes for junk food.

Additionally, the fruit has other by-products. Its seeds, known as the “King’s Nuts,” in the African region where it originates, can be eaten on their own, or pressed into a product similar to olive oil. It also is the main ingredient in a very tasty liqueur. Many of the fruits also have components that are utilized for cosmetics, food services, and medicine. Mizrahi said the wild vegetation can have curative properties. Some of those curative powers are mere folklore, but, in many occasions, they measure up to scientific scrutiny. One example is the “Sabra” cactus pear, which, in addition to being the symbol of the Israeli citizen (tough and prickly on the outside, and tender on the inside), can help alleviate prostate distress.

Israel exports around 200 metric tons of the wild vegetation per year, mostly to Western Europe (although an American company recently made a fruit shake using the fruit). Mizrahi is not particularly worried about the fruit becoming a staple product of other countries, however, because the combination of climate and technological know-how are prohibitive factors. According to Mizrahi’s calculations, Israel has around a 50-year window to transplant, grow, and market the wild plants before they are mass-produced in other countries.

Mizrahi said that his ongoing research satisfies more than his desire for scientific inquiry. It also satisfies the environmentalist in him – the part of him that honors Israel’s historic relationship to the land it was built on.

“No country has a right to exist without agriculture and green spaces,” said Mizrahi. “Israel must never lose those.”