Agricultural research in Israel

Agricultural research in Israel started around 1921 in the Agricultural Experiment Station, which since then developed into a major agricultural research center - the Agricultural Research Organization (ARO, also known as The Volcani Centre). The ARO has six institutes, two commodity-based (Plant and Animal Sciences) and four discipline-oriented institutes (Plant Protection, Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences, Technology & Storage of Agricultural Products and Agricultural Engineering). Additional agricultural research is done by the Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University (about 25%), as well as at Tel Aviv University, Bar Ilan University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

During the last fifty years agricultural research has been instrumental in changing Israeli agricultural from a "mixed farming" system to a highly industrialized system, which exports much of its produce to Europe. Production of avocados, new types of citrus, mangoes, grapes, sweet peppers, fresh herbs, tomatoes and a variety of ornamentals helped change Israeli farming to a ‘high tech' operation. Many of the various steps are computerized and electronically controlled, enabling less than 2% of the population to produce all major horticultural products for domestic consumption, and to export agricultural products valued at approximately one and a half billion dollars per year. Severe limitations in the supply of high quality water necessitated a shift to the use of low quality and recycled water for agriculture.

History

The beginning of agricultural research in most countries was based on a tradition of farmers' experience. In the territory of modern Israel, the dry farming had been practiced for more than 2000 years, on a subsistence level before the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine. Jewish settlers began arriving in greater numbers, and while many lacked agricultural experience, they were interested in developing intensive agriculture as already existed in Europe.

The forerunners of agricultural research in Palestine can be seen around 1870 (at that times part of the Ottoman empire) with the founding of the Mikveh Israel agricultural school ), where introductions of many fruit and garden crops were evaluated. When the first Jewish agricultural villages were established in the last two decades of the 19th century experimental plots for fruit and garden crops were allocated in each village. These plots were under the supervision of an agronomist and the village council confirmed the work plan. [Oren, 1993] This was a necessity as these villages were based mainly on horticultural crops, as grapes, citrus and almonds, while in the Arab villages agriculture was of a dry farming type with barley, chickpeas, sesame and olives predominating. The few German Templar villages were based on relatively large farms of dry farming of wheat and barley. [Turel, 2006]

In 1906, Aaron Aaronsohn discovered the wild emmer ("Triticum dicoccoides"), believed to be "the mother of the wheat. [cite journal
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title = Molecular Genetic Maps in Wild Emmer Wheat, Triticum dicoccoides: Genome-Wide Coverage, Massive Negative Interference, and Putative Quasi-Linkage
journal = Genome Research
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publisher = Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press
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url = http://www.genome.org/cgi/content/full/10/10/1509
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After the Balfour declaration by Great Britain in 1917 and the award of the mandate to Palestine by the League of Nations to Britain, the Jewish Agency established in 1921 the Agricultural Experiment Station. Their mission was to conduct research leading to small farms with intensive agriculture, specializing in mixed farming of fruit trees, cattle, chicken, vegetables and cereals.Fact|date=July 2008 The research station, headed by I. Elazari-Volcani and located in Rehovot, was the first scientific institute in Palestine. It had departments for crop sciences, fruit and citrus, soil and irrigation, entomology and plant pathology, post-harvest, food technology and farm economics.Fact|date=July 2008 The station had an extension department and results of its research were quickly passed on to the farmers. Results were spectacular. Yields of grain under dryland conditions increased from 600 to 5000 kg per hectare; and breeding and selection of cattle increased milk production from 800-1500 kg to 5000 kg/cow/year (1950) {now more than 11.000 kg/cow/year- 2005}.Fact|date=July 2008 Research in storage of citrus fruit reduced spoilage during shipping to Europe due to fungal rots from 30% to 2-3%.Fact|date=July 2008

In 1942 the Hebrew University in Jerusalem decided to establish the Institute for Agricultural Studies, which later developed into the Faculty of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Quality SciencesFact|date=July 2008. In the beginning the faculty staff came mainly from the Agricultural Experiment Station and students worked on their theses in the laboratories of the StationFact|date=July 2008.

The British government also established a small agricultural research department with several stations in both Arab and Jewish areas.Fact|date=July 2008 After 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, the two research stations were merged into the Agricultural Research Station within the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the extension and advisory service, previously part of the research station, now became an independent branch within the Ministry.Fact|date=July 2008

In 1960 an attempt was made to merge the Agricultural Research Station with the Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University, to form the "National and University Institute of Agriculture." The idea was based on the US model of the Land Grant Colleges).Fact|date=July 2008 This attempt failed, mainly because the basic working conditions were not equalized before the merger. Nevertheless, a close cooperation exists between the two institutions. The senior researchers of the Agricultural Research Station serve on the teaching staff of the Faculty and students from the Faculty do their research for M.Sc. and Ph.D. theses at the Research Station.Fact|date=July 2008

With the growth of the various disciplines in the Agricultural Research Station and the establishment of regional research stations, the organizational structure has changed over time.Fact|date=July 2008 The Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) was established in 1971, incorporating all agricultural research within the Ministry of Agriculture.Fact|date=July 2008

The Agricultural Research Organization (ARO)

The job of the ARO is to help the development of the Israeli agriculture by an efficient use of the limited water resources, development of crops for export markets, ensuring a decent income for the farming community, developing and adapting crops and technologies for newly settled regions without polluting the environment. Within the ARO are six institutes, two commodity (Plant and Animal Sciences) and four discipline oriented institutes (Plant Protection, Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences, Technology & Storage of Agricultural Products and Agricultural Engineering). The ARO has two additional research centers – Gilat, in the Southern part of Israel and Newe Yaar in the Northern part.

Within the six institutes the various scientific departments [cite web
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title = ARO
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publisher = Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development
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url = http://www.agri.gov.il/en/home/default.aspx
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] cover all agricultural disciplines except veterinary sciences. In addition to the Institutes the ARO maintains a computer unit, Genomics and Bio-informatics section, technology transfer (engaged in business related activities), international activities, youth activity units and a library.

The Veterinary Institute of the Veterinary Services of the Ministry of Agriculture is also located on the central campus of the ARO.

Organizations

Institutes are organized in accord with scientific disciplines and around common subjects. The Institute provides administrative and certain other services (maintenance, transport) and organizes seminars. The head of the Institute is a member of the ARO’s directorate and represents the Institute in major management forums. The Head of the ARO appoints him after being elected by the senior researchers of the Institute, for a term of four years. This system is probably not the best one as heads of institutes are sometimes elected not because of their leadership qualities, but due to the wish of the researchers to have an “easy going” director. It would probably be advisable to appoint heads of institutes by the Head of ARO and his directorate and subsequent approval of the scientific committee of the Institute’s researchers.

The head of the Institute should coordinate work between the departments; initiate research teams, also with research groups from other institutes and solve personnel and other problems. But as he has almost no funds at his disposal his initiatives are limited to his leadership abilities and persuasions.

Departments are centered on a common discipline or subject. They provide services to the researchers as greenhouse maintenance, acquisition of expensive equipment, media preparation etc. A minimum of researchers is required for a department to operate efficiently and if their number falls below a certain level (10-15) it is advised to merge it with another department. The department has timely seminars and journal clubs, and discussions of the ongoing and future research projects, allocation of rooms and greenhouse space and proposals for acquisition of joint equipment. It is highly recommended that researchers and technicians meet once a day for an informal coffee break, where all kinds of topics (and gossip) are brought up. This is imperative for the operation of the department.

The researchers elect heads of departments for a 3 years term that can be extended to 4 years, with an option to another term. However, it would be advisable that heads of departments be appointed by the Head of the ARO and the Head of the respective Institute and approved by the committee of senior researchers of the department. The candidate should be an outstanding researcher, with broad general knowledge of the department’s research area, up-to-date with recent scientific literature, familiar with the agricultural system and leadership qualities. He has to be open to the other voices and willing to hear constructive criticism.

Research staffs are recruited after a public announcement in local and international journals. The candidates should present detailed curriculum vitae and give a seminar on their recent work. Recently, when appointed he receives from the director of the ARO a two-year research budget, which allows him to develop his research program, and not to spend all his time for writing grant applications. A permanent appointment starts after the candidate reaches a rank equivalent to Senior Lecturer at the universities. The researcher’s appointment defines his position within the department together with a job description. The researcher develops his research program according to his job description, inclinations and available grants. He is free to a certain extent to divert from his original task to where grant funding is.

Two committees are handling promotions. The first one, headed by the director of ARO, or the deputy director for research, screens the applications (from the candidate or his supervisor) and requests outside reviews from senior scientists in Israel and abroad from first class universities or research institutions. The evaluation from the referee has to include a sentence that “ the candidate is well qualified to be appointed in my university at the respective grade”.This system which ensures that promotions are handled in a more or less impartial way, places however emphasis on publications in high impact journals. In addition the promotion committee’s evaluation is based on additional criteria as international activities (invited lectures, book chapters, invited reviews and competitive grants), practical achievements (including national competitive grants, publications in farmer’s and technical journals, reports) and teaching and supervision of students.

In addition to the permanent research staff a relative large number of students for a M.Sc or Ph.D. degrees are active within the departments. They perform their research work under the supervision and guidance of ARO’s researchers (who are accredited by a University) or under joint guidance with a University researcher. The University awards the degree. Their salaries are paid from the research grant of the ARO researcher or from a special fellowship fund of ARO. An M.Sc. degree generally requires two years of experimental work and for a Ph.D. between 3-5 years. Recently (2003/2004) the Ministry of Agriculture established a scholarships fund for a program entitled “The Whole Organism”. These scholarships will be awarded to excellent students devoting themselves to studies of the “Whole Organism” either for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree.

Priorities and funding

Up to 20 years ago priorities for research were determined by a committee of the Ministry, headed by the Director of the ARO, composed of representative from the ARO, Extension Service, the Planning Authority of the Ministry and scientists from Universities. After separating the function of Chief Scientist from that of the Director of ARO, the responsibility to determine priorities for the research fund provided by the Ministry, lies with the Chief Scientist. He operates with the help of the General R&D Council, an executive council, the scientific evaluation and steering committees. The latter, comprised a third of each researchers, extension and farmers, suggests the research needs, priorities and budgets for each field. The Scientific Evaluation Committees (SEC) (for the main scientific areas) comprise scientists from the various academic institutions, often including also extension specialists. They evaluate the scientific quality of the research proposal. The proposal includes a scientific and an applied background, detailed research plans including a time schedule, personnel and their qualifications, previous work done, detailed budget and relevant literature. Proposals are sent to reviewers, internal and external, sometimes also abroad, and decisions are based on reviewers’ comments and knowledge of the members of the committee. Projects are generally for three years. The scientist is required to submit each tear a brief progress report and at the end of the project a detailed report. In addition scientists present their results in seminars, before growers, in meetings of professional societies and in the scientific and technical (growers) literature.

The present main objectives of the public funded research are: Supply of fresh food products all the year around at reasonable prices; increasing exports of agricultural products; strengthening the farming community at the periphery of the country; increasing production and income of farmers; efficient use of the limited water resources and precision agriculture. These goals require development of new products and cultivars, improvement of food quality and safety, functional food, integrated pest management (IPM), precision agriculture and farming efficiency, with agricultural technologies friendly to the environment.

The fund of the Chief Scientist is open to scientists from all institutions – ARO, universities, regional research organizations, extension specialists and farmers.

In addition to the Chief Scientist’s fund the various commodity branches, as vegetables, flowers, fruits, dairy cattle etc. also allocate research funding of direct interest to them. The Minister of Agriculture, upon recommendation of the Chief Scientist, appoints the committee members for research in each commodity branch. In general a third of the members come from the scientific community, a third from the extension service and a third are farmers. The proposals submitted to the commodity branches also undergo the scientific evaluation process.

Funding for each project is often inadequate and does not allow a thorough investigation. It also results in a too high number of projects that each researcher takes on himself (to cover the costs of technicians, students, etc.) and a waste of his time in writing proposals and reports for each of the projects.

A substantial source of funding, mainly for more basic research, comes from bi-national funds. The leading one is The United States - Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD). BARD is a competitive funding program for mutually beneficial, mission-oriented, strategic and applied research of agricultural problems, jointly conducted by American and Israeli scientists. Since 1979, BARD has funded over 870 research projects, with awards of about $9.5 million annually for new research projects. Most of these are of three years duration, the average award being $300,00. Budgets are distributed about equally between the two countries. Proposals are evaluated both in the US by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and in Israel by the Scientific Evaluation Committees (SEC), based on expert reviewers from different countries. The recommendations from ARS and SEC are brought before a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) for final recommendations to the Board of BARD. Among the research areas funded were: Alleviating Heat Stress in Dairy Cattle, Breeding for Heat Tolerant Wheat Varieties, Improving Wheat-Seed Proteins by Molecular Approaches, Algal Culture and Improving Cut Flower Quality to name only a few where significant results were obtained (BARD, 20 year external review. [cite web
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title = The United States - IsraelBinational Agricultural Research and Development Fund
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date = December, 1999
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] The success of BARD led to the establishment of additional bi-national funds as the Joint Dutch-Israeli Agricultural Science and Technology Program, a bi-national Program with Queensland (Australia) and Canada. The latter are all on a much lower funding level than BARD. In addition funding is also obtained from the EU, The US – Israel Bi-national Science Foundation (BSF) and others.

The scientists generally initiate projects. Sometimes heads of institutes or the director of ARO will propose high priority research projects to a scientist or a group of scientists. This will generally be an area requiring a multi-team approach. Extension specialists also often contact researchers to suggest research related to their expertise.

Constraints

During the last 15 years a severe cut in the overall allocations for the regular permanent budget from government sources occurred. This was due to a shift in priorities from agriculture to high tech areas as electronics and software programs. Agriculture at present although with a high per capita income from exports has reached a plateau and research is important to keep the exports at its present level. Positions for technicians and administrative help were cut, funding for electricity and maintenance in the regular budget were sharply reduced and had to be covered from overheads on grants. The result from the standpoint of the researcher was that he had to spend an inappropriate part of his time in search for grant money, which were not sufficient to cover both the overheads and the direct costs of his research. More so, as local grants were small he had to commit himself to several projects, each of which was under- funded. The “hunt” for grant money from private sources and funds interested in cooperation with developing countries diverted some of the research effort to those areas, which were not always of high priority to Israeli agriculture. It also did not enable management at the departmental or intuitional level to pursue a balanced research program.

From a personal view basic needs required for the research operation as maintenance of buildings should not be covered from grant money, but by the Institute’s regular budget. Grant funding should be less than one third of the total operational costs (including salaries of the permanent staff) of a research unit, and overheads on grants should not exceed 25%.

While preparation and evaluation of research proposals is more than adequate, evaluation of results should be improved. Though some of the review is done when the scientific evaluation committee considers a new proposal or a renewal of the project, the general evaluation of projects should be strengthened.

Increase in future government (or business) allocations can only be expected if breakthroughs enabling major novelties in agricultural products can be developed, and/or new technologies in agricultural practises, as precision agriculture or functional food can be established. Thus, for example, if technologies will be developed whereby plants (or animals) can serve as bio-rectors for producing high value medical or industrial proteins. This could start a completely new agro-industry combing production of the high value compounds by farmers and their purification and evaluation by industry.

Other constrains relate to the organizational structure of the ARO. The ARO is presently a part of the Ministry of Agriculture and as such has to operate within the government regulations and restrictions. This curtails the freedom of ARO’s management and often hampers the smooth operation of the research projects. On the other hand changing the status of ARO to a semi-autonomous organization may lead to a further substantial cut in funds allocated by the government.

Universities

The Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Quality Sciences of the Hebrew University in Rehovot is a major partner in the conduct of agricultural research. In the Faculty, which includes Agricultural economics and management, a School of nutritional sciences and hotel, food and tourism management are about 90 tenured scientific staff. The major scientific disciplines are: Agricultural Botany; Field Crops, Vegetables and Genetics; and Horticulture; Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition; Entomology and Plant pathology; Soil and water sciences; Animal sciences; Veterinary medicine and Agricultural economics and management. [http://www.agri.huji.ac.il הפקולטה למדעי החקלאות, המזון ואיכות הסביבה ] ] The Faculty has a student body of about 2,300 students.

Roughly, scientists of the Faculty do about 25% of the agricultural research in Israel. Additional research on a limited scale is carried at Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv Universities, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, whose Jacob Blaustein Institute carries out specialist research on desert agriculture.

Regional

Several regional research centers are operating, the major ones being the Northern R&D, Southern R&D and the Arava valley R&D. They are partially funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund. Researchers from the ARO, the Faculty of Agriculture, Ben Gurion University and others are actively involved in research projects carried out within the Regional R&D canters. A senior researcher from the ARO generally acts as the scientific director in each regional center, and an ARO scientist coordinates all regional research. Their main goal is to direct the agricultural branches in the region into profitable channels by improving existing crops and developing new technologies and crops. Applying and transferring techniques developed by their R & D and other research institutes by means of model farms and an active extension service. Increasing efficiency in use of fresh and treated water; and improving the general professional level of local farmers. In the Arava valley, for example, studies are conducted on new varieties of melons, tomatoes, peppers, fresh herbs, strawberries, dates, flowers, flower-seed production and harvesting, aquaculture, livestock, fodder crops, and jojoba beans, a year-round cash crop used in the production of cosmetics and lubricants.

Achievements

During the last fifty years the ARO and its forerunners – the Agricultural Research Station, were instrumental in changing the Israeli agricultural from a “mixed farming” system to a highly industrialized type geared to a large extent to export its produce to Europe. Production of avocado, new types of citrus, mango, grapes, sweet peppers, fresh herbs, tomatoes and a variety of ornamentals changed farming to a ‘high tech” operation. Many of the various steps are computerized and electronically controlled, enabling less than 2% of the population to produce all major horticultural products, and in addition to export agricultural products for about one and a half billion dollars per year.

The severe limitations in the supply of high quality water necessitated a shift to the use of low quality and recycled water. Presently about 44% of the water used for agriculture comes from recycled and low quality water, with the aim to increase their use up to 50%. This was achieved without lowering quality of the produce.

A substantial part of the agricultural products are exported, mainly to Europe. Exports include fruits (citrus, avocado, grapes), vegetables (sweet peppers, tomatoes, potato, melons, sweet potato), ornamentals (cut flowers, potted plants, propagation material) and herbs. Agricultural export (fresh and processed) for 1997 reached over $1.329 billion - approximately 6.4% of the country's total exports (Source: Central Bureau of Statistics). This requires a permanent effort to innovate with new products, niches in seasons, better storage technologies to enable surface shipping and of course superior quality.

Major achievements included an increase in productivity of fruit, vegetable and field crops with a reduced input of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Efficiency in dairy farming increased markedly with milk production reaching highest level in the world of more than 11,000 litre/cow/year.

Future

Agricultural research in Israel will have to maintain its leading position to ensure food supply with minimal water use, exports of its present and future agricultural products, preserving the open spaces and developing new technologies for its own agriculture and for exports. All these will help to keep the present farming population on the land, with a decent standard of living.

References

Bibliography

*Oren, A. 1993. Agricultural experiments and trials in the Jewish settlements from their beginning until the first wold war.Yad ben Zvi and the Agricultural Research Organization; 190 p. (in Hebrew).
*Turel, S. (ed.)2006. Chronicle of A Utopia. The Templers in the Holy Land, 1868-1948. Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, 149p. (in Hebrew and English).


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