AGRO-ECOLOGY IN ISRAEL
Israel, a world leader in agriculture, depends on irrigation and fertilization to increase its crop yields. Over 400,000 hectares
(one million acres) of land are cultivated in Israel using 875 million cubic meters of water and 90,000 tons of fertilizers annually. The result 3.1 million tons of agricultural produce, 920 million liters of milk, 1.5 million eggs and 840 million flowers in 1991 (1991 figures).
Rural settlements are scattered throughout the country. Each engages in a variety of activities agriculture, industry, commerce and tourism; each takes a toll on the environment. Beneath the verdant, pastoral landscapes of the farm lurk major risks to the environment to water, soil, air and natural resources. Awareness of the negative repercussions of agricultural practices has only recently emerged and with it the new discipline of agro-ecology. Over the past year, the Ministry of the Environment’s newest division, Agro-Ecology, has begun to set the infrastructure for the introduction of environmentally-sound agricultural practices into Israel’s rural sector.
An open line of communication to the target audience, the farming community, a sound legislative base, just the right combination of "carrot and stick" education and enforcement, increased cooperation with governmental, voluntary and other organizations, and the provision of professional solutions to environmental problems these are the aims of the Agro-Ecology Division.
Agricultural pesticides are hazardous substances; proper supervision over their use is imperative. Preliminary data indicate that the problem of pesticide contamination is more widespread than originally thought; pesticide residues all too frequently find their way into food, water and soil with frightening implications. Cases of pesticide poisoning are recorded in Israeli emergency rooms each year, and throughout the country, rural and urban populations are at times subjected to unnecessarily high levels of pesticides due to overspraying, improper storage and burning or burial of pesticide-laden agricultural wastes.
The agricultural community represents, for all intents and purposes, a large group of exterminators but a group which is exempt from the licensing and training requirements of pest-control operators. Their only guidelines the instructions on the labels of the product itself (advising how often, when and where to spray). Within the framework of an interdisciplinary committee on pesticide use, the Ministry of the Environment is currently working to improve pesticide use guidelines. Materials are assessed with regard to their environmental impact, endurance, risk to groundwater, etc. If the data indicate substantial environmental risk, the Ministry withholds its support for approval. Inspection and enforcement are undertaken by the Poisons Monitoring Division of the Nature Reserves Authority, under the responsibility of the Environment Ministry.
An important step forward in the prevention of water pollution was the promulgation of regulations, in 1991, which forbid aerial spraying of biological and/or chemical substances for agricultural purposes near water sources. Enforcement of the regulations, which set limits to aerial spraying, in accordance to wind conditions and distance from the water source, has met with some difficulties. Farmers in the Kinneret drainage basin, with its intricate system of vertical and horizontal water canals, contend that compliance with the stipulation that spraying cannot be carried out at a distance less than 300 meters from a water source, makes aerial spraying impossible. While the division is currently undertaking a review of the scope of the problem, the general conclusion is that there is no room for lenience; farmers will have to undertake alternative technological solutions or ground spraying to ensure that the country’s precious water sources are protected from contamination.
Another 1991 regulation prohibits the emptying or rinsing of pesticide application equipment into a water source, directly or indirectly. The farming community has yet to take the new regulations seriously. Only a comprehensive program of enforcement along with re-education will change entrenched practices such as rinsing sprayers in structures adjacent to water wells. Meanwhile, real progress has only been noted in the Kinneret drainage basin.
A welcome sign is growing citizen awareness and activism. Complaints from residents living in urban settlements (such as Ramat Hasharon) interfacing with farmland and from residents of agricultural settlements themselves regarding pesticide inhalation or skin contact as a result of aerial and ground spraying are spurring action. In this case, the Ministry of the Environment is already drawing up draft regulations on the use of pesticides near residential areas.
Pesticide Residues in Agricultural Produce
Pesticide residues in agricultural produce earmarked for export are regularly tested by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Plant Protection Department. Lack of manpower and budget prevents the routine testing of produce designated for local consumption; the result a portion of the produce which reaches local markets is known to exceed permitted levels for pesticide residues. Many agricultural workers simply do not adhere to recommended quantities nor to the final dates for use before harvesting which are set out on the label.
The Food Service in the Ministry of Health is responsible for regular monitoring and testing of food quality for local consumption, but it does so only on a sporadic basis. The Ministry has the necessary budget for testing the produce which reaches the marketplace in its central laboratory but does not have the necessary manpower to test produce on site, at the farm. In accordance to an agreement between the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Health, poison monitoring inspectors will sample fruits and vegetables ready for marketing, while still within the jurisdiction of the farmer, and the Ministry of Health will test the samples in its laboratories. This agreement, to be implemented at first at the limited scope of 600 tests a year, should nevertheless bring about major improvements. The test results will be discussed by representatives of the two ministries and when pesticide residues are discovered, the team will decide on the measures to be taken, whether publicity in the mass media, warning or actual destruction and confiscation of the contaminated produce.
Storage and Disposal of Pesticides
The problems associated with the use of pesticides begin with improper handling, use and storage and continue to the final stages of disposal. All storage places for pesticides in rural areas are supervised by inspectors of the Poisons Monitoring Division. Last year alone, inspectors visited hundreds of pesticide storehouses to examine their compliance with environmental guidelines. But here too, progress is only just beginning. Awareness among farmers is so low that several farmers were found to store pesticides in well- pumping stations.
Pesticides whose date of use has expired present yet another problem. While expired pesticides are unsuitable for use, they are extremely toxic and require disposal to the hazardous waste disposal site at Ramat Hovav. This requires the establishment of regional collection and disposal networks. The regional authorities of Emek Yisrael and the Upper Galilee received financial aid from the Environment Ministry during 1992 to set up a system of collection and transport to Ramat Hovav. Other regional councils are expected to follow suit.
Empty pesticide containers pose another serious hazard. Empty pesticide packings are discarded throughout the country in fields, roadways, near wells, along river banks and water canals, near irrigation outlets, in yards and in approved and unapproved waste disposal sites. While label guidelines currently permit the disposal of the packing by burial or incineration, cooperation among the Ministries of the Environment, Labor and Agriculture is beginning to bear fruit. Bury or burn options are gradually disappearing from instruction labels and the Ministry of Labor has commenced working on an amendment which will forbid such label instructions altogether.
The principles for dealing with pesticide packing are similar to those dealing with solid waste disposal. Their efficient disposal must be based on separation and classification, crushing and compaction, regional collection and finally, centralized transport to the disposal site. Many ideas have already been forwarded by a steering committee on the treatment of empty pesticide containers: regulations requiring disposal of such packing to Ramat Hovav, to other approved waste disposal sites and to recycling plants, the imposition of a deposit fee as an incentive for collection of empty containers from the field and temporary storage in regional transit stations. Until the necessary funds are available, the Division will cooperate with regional councils on finding a temporary solution whereby rinsed, crushed packing, will be transported to approved sites and/or to a plastics recycling plant; testing for residues will be undertaken before either burial or recycling are undertaken.
The relatively low price of both synthetic fertilizers and organic manures coupled with the desire of farmers to improve the output of their cultivated plots have led to excessive fertilization. A 1991 survey by the Hydrological Service on the presence of nitrates and other compounds in water wells revealed that about a third of the wells in the country contained nitrates at a level which would exclude them from drinking purposes in accordance to the European standard (45 mg/l). Studies have also shown that on the coastal plain, above the main aquifer, intensive use of nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture contributed nearly 70% of the nitrate burden in the groundwater.
The development of greenhouse agriculture in Israel has had its down-side as well. Recent literature reveals that greenhouses contribute significantly to groundwater contamination. Since greenhouse crops are intensively irrigated and fertilized, excessive salts must be washed out by periodic hosing. The excessive water drains outside the greenhouse and leaches into the groundwater.
A Ministry of Agriculture survey estimates the total area of greenhouses in Israel at 2,200 hectares, the total annual irrigation in greenhouses at 1500-2000 cubic meters of water, the rate of leaching of fertilizer water at 30-50% and the total of fertilizers leached every year at 8,400-18,700.
To deal with the problem, the Ministry of the Environment has proposed draft regulations on the prevention of groundwater pollution by greenhouse leachate. The proposed regulations would forbid farmers to drain the excess waters and fertilizer to the ground and groundwater. The alternatives: recycling or disposal by means of the sewage system. The approach today is to disconnect the greenhouse from direct contact with the soil so as to avoid groundwater contamination and to promote reuse, perhaps in combination with rainwater from roofs and gutters.
High on the agenda is the re-education of farmers to reduce the use of concentrated fertilizers and to substitute alternative and newer fertilizers. Other recommendations include regulatory measures such as fees on purchased materials, restricted use of fertilizers, manures and effluents in sensitive areas, reduction of the permitted concentrated of nitrates in groundwater from 90 mg/l to 50 mg/l and soil monitoring by the farmer himself before every fertilization.
Agricultural activity creates significant amounts of different types of waste solid, slurry and liquid waste, produced by farm animals, crops and synthetic products. Livestock farms produce substantial amounts of animal sewage which usually finds its way to cesspools and from there to groundwater. Proper treatment, disposal and recycling of the solid and liquid wastes of the cowshed and chicken coop require the establishment of appropriate facilities. Work teams have been set up to find solutions to the problem of animal wastes and to formulate conditions for the licensing and operation of livestock farms within the framework of the Businesses Licensing Law. Business licensing conditions have already been formulated for the poultry-raising and water fowl industries.
Such ill-advised practices as the accumulation of cow manure and slurry on the ground and the improper disposal of waste from Israel’s 130 goose-raising farms are especially problematic since they result in stench, groundwater contamination and visual blight. Experts are hard at work finding innovative solutions disposal into sealed pools and recycling and reuse technologies utilizing additives along with the wastes themselves. The advantages of waste and wastewater recycling, when undertaken in accordance to strict environmental guidelines, are clear: agricultural irrigation, savings in the purchase and use of synthetic fertilizers, enrichment of the soil with organic material and a low-cost solution to environmental nuisances.
Solid Agricultural Waste
The sources of agricultural waste are many and varied. Poultry and cow manure, carcasses and abattoir waste, yard waste, plastic materials and crop residues all constitute agricultural waste. While all of them are sources of groundwater, air, landscape and nature pollution, they can be converted into environmentally and economically profitable products provided regional collection, transport, compaction and disposal systems are set up.
The quantity of carcasses and abattoir waste is estimated at 60,000-80,000 tons per year. Proper treatment of this waste is imperative in order to prevent air, soil and water pollution as well as the spread of diseases such as rabies. Today, only one plant is authorized to render both carcasses and slaughterhouse waste; the others handle slaughterhouse waste only. In view of the high economic value of this type of waste, an interministerial committee is giving special attention to the subject. The idea is to minimize the number of rendering plants to two or three, in different parts of the country, pending the results of feasibility studies and environmental impact statements. In the interim, collection, transport and regulated burial in approved sites will be encouraged. An effort is also being made to amend the regulations on abattoir waste which currently permit unregulated burning and burial.
The existing of a compulsory life insurance fund for cows, a fact which is relatively unknown in the farming community, is expected to provide a positive incentive for farmers to dispose of carcasses in environmentally-safe ways. The Ministry of the Environment is currently exploring ways of encouraging the establishment of a similar fund for poultry, so as to make safe disposal attractive economically as well as ecologically.
Yard waste produced in the rural sector, including brush, leaves, grass clipping and small trunks, presents additional opportunities. Research into alternative uses such as straw for animal bedding, compost and mulching is currently on the agenda. Most promising for immediate use is mulching because of its water saving capacity
(about 50%), added savings in herbicide use and soil cultivation, more vigorous growth, moderate temperature changes and prevention of erosion.
Cultivation Methods in Agriculture
Agricultural activity may be transformed to environmentally- friendly activity by means of changes in work processes and procedures. The establishment of good agriculture practices, the advancement of Integrated Pest Management, Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture and bio-organic agriculture present the agricultural community with promising challenges. Equipment for the mechanical pumping of insects, rapidly decomposing substances, crop-specific and slow-release fertilizers, plastic containers to prevent the infiltration of manure and silage to groundwater, farm kits for monitoring soil and water and environmentally-sound approaches to pest and weed management are only a few examples. The division, in cooperation with the Extension Service of the Ministry of Agriculture, works to increase awareness of farmers to the existence of these possibilities, and to encourage research and development.
Hopefully a situation will arise whereby rural residents and the agricultural community will work hand in hand with ecologists to ensure that agricultural practices are not only economically- profitable but environmentally-sound as well. For example, controlled fertilization using drip irrigation methods can ensure a minimum discharge of nitrates to the soil and maximal utilization by the plant; improper fertilizer use, on the other hand, can contaminate the environment, raise the salt level in soils and actually reduce agricultural growth. The same is true of innumerable other farming practices, whether irrigation by effluents, integration of fertilization and irrigation systems, water utilization or application of pesticides through irrigation networks. The environmental repercussions of these practices can no longer be ignored.
Education, Guidance, and Cooperation
Israeli farmers have worked long and hard, using extensive research and practical experience, to increase both the quantity and quality of Israeli produce. The time is now ripe for Israel to launch a new era of ecologically-safe agriculture. Farmers are already applying to the Ministry of the Environment in search for solutions to environmental problems. As a first step, the Environment Ministry hopes to organize a cadre of environmentally-conscious farmers who will serve as liaisons between the ministry’s agro- ecology coordinators on the district level and the farming community. These environmental trustees, trained by experts in the field, will serve as ecological ambassadors to their fellow- farmers.
Agro-ecology, if it is to succeed, requires cooperation, with other departments in the ministry hazardous substances, solid waste, water, air and education and information, with other government agencies Agriculture, Health, Labor and Interior, and most importantly with the agricultural sector itself. Awareness is still in its infancy, but the first steps toward mutual trust and understanding have already been made.
Investigations and enforcement, coupled by instruction and education are slowly changing the face of agriculture in Israel. As a world leader in agriculture, Israel is looking forward to taking an active part in the international effort to establish codes of good agricultural practice for the benefit of people everywhere.