By Peter Griffin 18/08/2015

A look at a map of the Middle East confirms that Israel is a tiny country relative to its neighbours. But consider the fact that 60 per cent of its landmass is also covered in desert, an arid expanse to the south of the country – the Negev.

Yesterday I ventured into the blistering heat of the Negev desert, where scientists are researching crops to determine the best ways to try and expand sustainable agriculture in this desert region.

Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, had a vision of seeing the Negev come to life, irrigated and productive and allowing the fledgling state room to grow and support settlers in the south.

In 1963 Ben-Gurion said:

The Negev is a desolate area which is currently empty of people and therein lies its importance. What it lacks is water and Jews. It has the potential to be densely populated, even amounting to millions, two million can be settled there with agriculture and two million with industry.

Sixty years on, the Negev remains the large expanse of desert it was in Ben-Gurion’s day – just 10 per cent of Israel’s  population of 8 million live in the region in cities on its fringes, small towns, farms and kibbutz. But a renewed effort is underway to try and make the Negev more sustainable for agriculture.

Yesterday I visited the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Agriculture where they are growing crops under differing conditions to see what can grow and thrive in desert regions. They’ve had good success with Israel’s famous cherry tomatoes which are exported all over the world, regular-sized tomatoes, olives and dates.

Israel's famed cherry tomatoes
Israel’s famed cherry tomatoes

They are even experimenting with growing the native weeds of the Negev that have been eaten for thousands of years and are more nutritious than tomatoes and capsicums.

But as I’ll explain below some of these scientific breakthroughs are being undermined by global market forces that are battering the prospects of farmers braving the desert.

Tolerance to salt

The key to the research underway here is figuring out what crops can be sustained by the salty, brackish water that is tapped from as deep as 700 metres beneath the Negev. This water source accounts for 65% of irrigation in the Negev, where a maximum of 100mm of rain falls a year, just 10% of the amount needed to irrigate existing crops.

Olives: a staple crop but facing fierce competition from other producing nations.
Olives: a staple crop but facing fierce competition from other producing nations.

“In Israel, freshwater is very limited in availability and very expensive, but underground we have saline water. We are working out how to use it for irrigation,” says Zion Shemer, the research centre’s manager.

“Desalinated water is good for drinking, but not good for irrigation. Minerals such as magnesium and calcium are removed in the desalination process, minerals that are crucial to the development of healthy crops.”

Scientists are therefore testing how far they can push plants on salty water. One trial has been running for 12 years comparing olive trees irrigated to varying degrees with salty water.

The author in front of a test crop of olive trees
The author in front of a test crop of olive trees

Another is testing the ability of wine grapes to grow in the desert – chardonnay through to merlot. While grapes cannot tolerate salty water, wine could become a high value industry for the Negev and therefore justify freshwater irrigation, particularly if more effective ways of using desalinated water are possible.

Financial pressures

Zion Shemer’s colleague Armon took us on a tour of the sun-baked farm where olive trees and date palms spring out of the parched earth.

“Plants do not like salt. You have to irrigate in such a way that salt is not concentrated in the root zone of the soil,” he says.

“We have to irrigate 30 – 50 per cent more in order to get rid of the excess salt. You need more water to leech the salt down below the root system.”

That’s becoming a problem as farmers face financial pressure.

“We are starting to see some problems with olives and salinity. Farmers trying to lower their expenses minimize irrigation, damaging olive trees. They need to change their approach,” says Amon who added that the search is on for alternative crops such as dates that tolerate saline water and are more economically viable for the region.

Says Armon: “The balance between income and expenses has become negative in recent years. We need to find other crops.”

Israel is competing with tomato, date and olive growers in developing countries, where labour costs are 5% of those in Israel.

“The quality and yield is the highest in the world. The problem is the cost of production,” says Armon. We are up against the developing world. This is a problem.”

As in Ben-Gurion’s time, the problem remains access to plentiful water. Science is making inroads increasing productivity with meagre limits, but it is a far cry from the blooming of the Negev that the founding prime minister wished for and which could be extended across the border into Egypt where similarly parched conditions exist in the Sinai.

“The potential is big. We have a lot of land here. If water is available the sky is the limit,” says Armon. “I have a dream that on both sides of the border will be agricultural farmland providing Europe with fresh produce.”

Tomorrow: turning the tap – the scientific efforts around water desalination in the Negev.

 Peter Griffin is visiting israel as a guest of the Government of Israel.