Water: What price should Israeli agriculture pay?

by Maskil on 30 Nov 2007

According to this recent article in Globes:

The government has just announced that the price of water will go up 11.3% beginning in January for household use. At first, this price increase appears economically sensible, since water is scarce and over-consumption is widespread in Israel. A price increase will reduce demand and save water. But the logic stops here, because the farmers who consume more than 60% of the national water will see their water bill go up by only 2.5%. Apparently, political interests and lobbying strength replace economic logic and trump market efficiency.

Government policy that artificially lowers the price of water to farmers leads to higher water consumption and increased damage to the environment.

For most of its history, Zionism correctly understood the importance of agriculture in creating a balanced society in Palestine/Israel. As a result, at least until a few decades ago, the Israeli agricultural sector was rightly regarded as one of the jewels in the Zionist crown. This appreciation of the role of agriculture began to change, however, as the farming sector’s share of the Israel’s water consumption came under scrutiny (perhaps there was also an element of early post-Zionism in this evaluation?).

Where to now for Israeli agriculture? Does Israeli society expect farming to fall on its collective pitchfork in the name of water conservation? Should it immediately begin paying market related prices for its water usage? Does the embattled Jewish farmer even have a role in a 21st century Israel, and in a world of Climate Change and water scarcity?

I believe that, especially in a world impacted by Climate Change (Global Scorching), the importance of Israel’s farming sector will increase rather than reduce, with the factors below having greater impact:

  • Climate Change will continue to cause the world’s supply of usable fresh water to shrink.
  • Globally, agricultural land will increasingly be taken out of food production and instead be dedicated to bio-fuel production.
  • The world’s shrinking agricultural acreage will be further eroded by desertification of marginal and even core farming lands
  • As the true cost of transport (taking Climate Change impact into account) becomes factored into the price of agricultural goods, food will once again need to be grown as close to the consumer as possible. Importation from faraway or more favourable climes will become increasingly expensive and difficult.

For geopolitical reasons as well (aka the Rough Neighbourhood), Israel needs to be as food independent as possible, and for now cannot afford to rely on even its (physically) closest neighbours being prepared to make up any food deficit.

Israel will thus increasingly be forced to rely on its own efforts to “feed the nation”, as countries are forced to export less and import more to meet their own needs.

Lastly, the continued (or restored) health of Israeli society simply requires that we maintain a rural/agricultural population at a basic level, and continue to steward our agricultural resources for as long as we inhabit this planet.

How do we then balance the competing claims of water conservation and a robust farming sector? I see the objectives as being:

  • Continue to reduce agriculture’s footprint on water consumption.
  • Move towards a situation where agriculture is eventually able to pay market rates for water.
  • Continue to maintain and, if possible, even expand Israel’s agricultural capability and capacity.

To do this would require a concerted effort involving government (such as the ministries of agriculture and environment affairs), organised agriculture, the private sector (especially the water technology industry) and the national water authority, as well as universities and academia. This effort would need to be directed towards addressing at least the following issues:

  • Reduce the farming community’s water consumption, utilize lower quality water, and return as much as possible to the system.
  • Make greater use of the drip irrigation and other water-efficient irrigation methods that largely have their home here.
  • Migrate towards less “water intensive” methods of agriculture, e.g. greater use of greenhouses and hothouses, organic farming and the Permaculture philosophy.
  • Place more emphasis on so-called forest farming and tree crops, which require less irrigation.
  • Put more focus on crops grown for direct consumption by humans, rather than those grown for meat production.
  • The increased use of crop varieties that are more drought resistant (while avoiding the ecological trap of GM crops).

This cannot be achieved overnight and would need to be planned and budgeted for. In the interim, society as a whole would need to continue to subsidise the agricultural sector until it can pay its own way as regards water. Consider, however, that at the moment the farming sector is in effect subsidising the skewed value society places on the food we eat each day. Perhaps when food is priced correctly – and when the benefits accrue to the producer and consumer rather than the middle man – farmers will no longer have to beg our indulgence.

There is no doubt that the present and future of Israel lies in the world of high-tech and services rather than the orchard and the plough. In the interests of remaining centered (not to mention eating), however, we should not allow Israel’s farms to fall into neglect. An asset and culture such as this can be lost in a decade, but take lifetimes to restore.

I think it would be appropriate to close with this quotation from an article on the California Farm Bureau Federation website:

The Dead Sea article criticizes local governments for permitting unrestricted use of irrigation, which produces only 3 percent of Israel’s gross national product but uses up half of its water supply. Where have we heard that type of criticism before? Was it about California’s Colorado River allotment and the fact that very few farmers use most of it to grow crops?

Very few people seem to ask how much food would cost if farmers did not grow crops or why there seems to be a market for these crops that farmers grow.

Suppose unsubsidized Israeli food were 10 times more expensive. Then the irrigation would produce 30 percent of Israel’s gross national product without any increase in water supply. In that case, everyone would be clamoring for protection of the irrigation supply because of high food prices, instead of its restriction.


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