AGRO-ECOLOGY

Israel, a world leader in agriculture, depends on irrigation and fertilization to increase its crop yields. Since Israel attained its independence in 1948, the total area under cultivation has increased by a factor of 2.6 to approximately 445,000 hectares, and irrigated land has increased by a factor of 8 to 240,000 hectares. During the same period, the number of agricultural communities grew from 400 to 750.

Israel meets most of its food requirements through domestic production, using some one million cubic meters of water and 90,000 tons of fertilizers annually. The result over one million liters of milk, 1.33 million tons of fruit (900,000 of which are citrus) and 892,000 tons of vegetables in 1993 alone.

Awareness of the potentially negative repercussions of agricultural practices has only recently emerged and with it the new discipline of agro-ecology. The Ministry of the Environment’s Agro-Ecology Division deals with the prevention of environmental degradation arising from improper agricultural practices in Israel’s rural sector. By means of monitoring, legislation, enforcement, education and guidance, and in cooperation with the farming community, agricultural organizations, research institutes, regional councils and government ministries, the division is helping to address the challenge of cultivating high-quality produce which meets both agricultural and environmental and health standards.

Pesticide Pollution

Agricultural pesticides are hazardous substances; proper supervision of their use is imperative. Pesticide residues all too frequently find their way into food, water and soil; cases of pesticide poisoning are recorded in Israeli emergency rooms each year; and 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 Ministry of Agriculture’s Plant Protection and Inspection Department is in charge of the registration, regulation and supervision of pesticides. Pesticide use is monitored by three bodies: the Ministries of Agriculture, Health and the Environment. There are 790 registered pesticides in Israel. Of these, about 32% are insecticides, 17% fungicides, 23% herbicides, and the remainder molluscicides, rodenticides, bird and mammal repellents, fumigants, materials for post-harvest treatments, wound sealing materials, plant growth regulators, micronutrients, pesticides for home gardens and adjuvants.

Chemical control is applied to roughly 95% of Israeli crops. Recent figures indicate that about 40 kilograms of pesticides are applied to the average irrigated hectare (down from 75 kilograms in the 1970s), of which the polluting potent materials amount to some 15 kilograms per irrigated hectare. A drop in pesticide usage has been noted in recent years, due to more efficient use, changes in cropping patterns, awareness of the environment and introduction of integrated pest management systems.

The pesticide registration process begins with testing and investigation over a period of months or years, followed by provisional approval for limited use. When comprehensive toxicological data have been gathered, an advisory committee, composed of representatives of several ministries including the Ministry of the Environment, decides whether or not to approve the product for final registration. Materials are assessed with regard to their environmental impact, endurance, risk to groundwater and other factors. If data indicate substantial environmental risk, the Environment Ministry can withhold its support for approval.

The Ministry of Agriculture supervises and regulates quality and health requirements of exported agricultural produce and cooperates with international bodies on standardization of pesticide tolerance regulations.

In light of decisions on methyl bromide, within the framework of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Minister of the Environment appointed an interdisciplinary task force in 1993 to study possible emission reduction methods and potential alternatives and substitutes for methyl bromide. The task force’s report, issued in February 1994, includes recommendations on the reduction of doses, use of alternatives and research and development to significantly reduce methyl bromide emissions. Israel, a major exporter of methyl bromide, uses some 2,800 tons a year of the material, mostly in agriculture.

Aerial and Ground Spraying

The Ministry of the Environment is actively enforcing water pollution prevention regulations, under the Water Law, designed to prevent water contamination by pesticides. A 1991 regulation, which forbids aerial spraying of biological and/or chemical substances for agricultural purposes near water sources has resulted in investigations and legal actions against spraying companies which circumvent the regulations. In 1993, 170 inspections of aerial spraying sites were undertaken, 100 complaints regarding aerial and ground spraying were received (compared to 38 in 1992) and forty investigations were opened (compared to seven in 1992).

In light of objective difficulties in implementing the regulations in some areas of the country, a draft amendment was recently prepared which would permit the spraying of non-toxic biological agents and of granulated fertilizers at shorter distances than those originally required (50 meters from the water source as opposed to 300 meters previously). The draft amendment also calls for the establishment of a special permits committee to deliberate upon exceptional cases in which full compliance with the law is impossible.

Another 1991 regulation prohibits the emptying or rinsing of pesticide application equipment into a water source, directly or indirectly, and requires the installation and operation of rinsing installations. Enforcement of the regulation has led to major improvements, especially in the Lake Kinneret drainage basin. A comprehensive program of enforcement and education has been undertaken to change entrenched practices, including the rinsing of sprayers in structures adjacent to water wells.

A welcome sign is growing citizen awareness and activism. Complaints from residents living in urban settlements 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. The Ministry of the Environment has already prepared draft regulations on the use of pesticides near residential areas. A 1992 amendment to the Pharmacists Regulations prohibits aerial spraying at a distance of 120 meters from a dwelling or 12 meters from a road. It allows the Minister of the Environment, after consultation with the Ministers of Health and Agriculture, to establish areas in which aerial spraying is absolutely prohibited.

Pesticide Residues in Agricultural Produce

While all pesticide containers in Israel are labelled with specific instructions on frequency and manner of spraying, usage directions are inadequately enforced. Many farmers simply do not adhere to recommended quantities nor to the final dates for use before harvesting which are set out on the label.

While pesticide residues in agricultural produce earmarked for export are regularly tested by the Ministry of Agriculture (about 5000 crop analyses were conducted in 1992) to ensure that export produce meets stringent environmental and health standards, lack of manpower and budget prevents the routine testing of produce designated for local consumption. As a result, a portion of the produce which reaches local markets is known to exceed permitted levels for pesticide residues.

The Food Service in the Ministry of Health is responsible for regular monitoring and testing of food quality for local consumption, but testing in the past has been sporadic. While the Health Ministry has the necessary budget for testing the produce which reaches the marketplace in its central laboratory, it does not have the necessary manpower to test produce on site, at the farm. Fortunately, the situation is now improving. In accordance with a 1993 agreement between the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Health, pesticide monitoring inspectors of the Nature Reserves Authority, under the responsibility of the Environment Ministry, have begun to collect samples of fruits and vegetables ready for marketing, while still within the jurisdiction of the farmer. The Ministry of Health then tests the samples in its laboratories. Test results are reviewed by representatives of the two ministries, and when pesticide residues are discovered, the team decides on appropriate measures, whether publicity in the mass media, warning, or destruction and confiscation of the contaminated produce.

Crops which have been recommended for monitoring by the Ministry of Health include strawberries, lettuce, carrot, mint, spinach, parsley, garlic, onion and dill. The agreement, currently implemented at a scope of 600 tests a year, is expected to bring about major improvements. It has already catalyzed the Ministry of Health to allocate extra funds and a new division to check pesticide residues in food.

Storage and Disposal of Pesticides

The problems associated with the use of pesticides begin with improper handling, usage and storage, and continue to the final stages of disposal. Until recently, awareness among farmers was so low that some cases of pesticide storage in well-pumping stations were discovered.

Some 1600 pesticide warehouses in rural areas are supervised by pesticide monitoring inspectors, under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment. In 1993, 720 inspections of pesticide warehouses were conducted (compared to 500 in 1992) in order to examine the compliance of warehouses with environmental guidelines and laws. This increase is attributed to the recent passage of the Hazardous Substances Law which requires pesticide warehouses to hold poison permits. Of the warehouses visited, 9.7% received poison permits in 1993, 10.2% were found to be unsuitable for pesticide storage in terms of structure, 56.3% were found to be defective. The remaining warehouses were closed for a variety of reasons in 1993.

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 at the Ramat Hovav hazardous waste disposal site. The Ministry of the Environment is granting financial aid to a number of regional councils for setting up regional collection and disposal networks.

Empty pesticide containers pose yet another hazard. They are discarded throughout the country in fields, roadways, near wells and water sources, near irrigation outlets and in approved and illegal waste disposal sites. While label guidelines currently permit their disposal by burial or incineration, bury or burn options are gradually disappearing from instruction labels as a result of cooperation among the Ministries of the Environment, Labor and Agriculture. The Ministry of the Environment has drafted regulations calling for environmentally-safe collection and disposal of empty pesticide containers at Ramat Hovav, approved waste disposal sites and recycling plants.

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. In addition to the draft regulations, other ideas are being considered including the imposition of a deposit fee as an incentive for the collection of empty containers, and temporary storage in regional transit stations. The Agro-Ecology Division is currently cooperating with regional councils on finding a temporary solution whereby rinsed and crushed pesticide packing will be transported to approved sites and/or to a plastic recycling plant. Testing for residues will be undertaken before either burial or recycling.

Fertilizer Contamination

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 Hydrological Service survey on the presence of nitrates and other compounds in water wells has revealed that a third of the country’s wells (and over half of the wells in the coastal aquifer) contain nitrates at a level which would exclude them from drinking purposes according to the European standard (45 mg/l). Studies have also shown that on the coastal plain, above the main aquifer, intensive use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture has contributed to 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 greenhouse agriculture contributes significantly to groundwater contamination, as greenhouse crops are intensively irrigated and fertilized, and excessive salts are washed out by periodic irrigation. 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 1,500-2,000 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 from draining the excess waters and fertilizer to the ground and groundwater. The alternatives: recycling or disposal through 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.

While improper fertilizer use can contaminate the environment, raise the salt level in soils and actually reduce agricultural growth, controlled fertilization, using drip irrigation methods and slow-release fertilizers, can ensure a minimum discharge of nitrates to the soil and maximal utilization by the plant. 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 concentration of nitrates in groundwater from 90 mg/l to 50 mg/l and fertilizer application as a function of soil and plant monitoring.

Agricultural Wastes

Agricultural activity creates significant amounts of different types of waste solid, slurry and liquid 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. An interministerial committee on the treatment of animal sewage and waste has recently been set up to propose solutions to these problems and to formulate conditions for the licensing and operation of livestock farms within the framework of the Licensing of Businesses Law. Within this framework, business licensing conditions are being 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; 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 with 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.

Environmentally-safe operational procedures for cowsheds have already been established, in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture, and are soon to be enforced within the framework of the Licensing of Businesses Law. In addition, enforcement of the Water Law in geese farms has been upgraded, and in some cases, geese farmers have been prosecuted for the contamination of water sources.

Solid Agricultural Waste

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 in Israel is estimated at over 100,000 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 working on solutions 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. Various initiatives for the collection and transport of carcasses and abattoir waste on the part of the private sector have already begun, most notably in the north of the country. Additional improvements are expected as a result of new legislation, including a draft amendment to the regulations on abattoir waste which currently permit unregulated burning, and business licensing conditions for rendering plants, which were drafted in collaboration with the plants themselves.

The existence of a compulsory 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. Farmers are paid $160 per dead cow, over six months old, on condition the carcass is examined by a veterinarian and then transported to a site approved by the Ministry of the Environment. The ministry 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.

Integrated Pest Management

Agricultural activity may be transformed into environmentally- friendly activity through 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 some examples. The Agro-Ecology Division, in cooperation with the Extension Service of the Ministry of Agriculture, is working to increase the environmental awareness of farmers and to encourage research and development.

Although still in its infancy, integrated pest management (IPM) offers an effective way of dealing with insect control problems and relies heavily on protection and conservation of natural enemies, parasites, predators and diseases that regulate or balance populations of pests. By encouraging natural enemies, the need for chemical insecticides can be reduced dramatically when compared to conventional spray programs. In cases where chemical pesticides are ineffective in solving pest problems due to the development of increased resistance by the pest to the poison, natural enemies provide an effective solution which is safe for user, crop and environment.

Biological control, largely pioneered in Kibbutz Sede Eliyahu in the Beit She’an Valley, is currently being implemented in several agricultural areas in Israel. The development and introduction of beneficial natural enemies (e.g. predatory mites, predatory beetles, parasitic wasps) is proving to be a superior alternative to conventional chemical pesticides in terms of long-term effectiveness, cost and safety. Projects include isolation and synthesis of pheromones secreted by insects to trap males and thus reduce the need for chemical control; use of pheromone traps to monitor the number of males as well as the egg-laying period in order to pinpoint the ideal time for spraying; commercial production of the Bacillus t. israelensis (BTI) to control water- breeding insects; use of fungal products to control fungi that cause plant diseases; and release of barn owls to effectively control rodent populations in farming areas.

The development of organic agriculture promises further reductions in environmentally-harmful agricultural practices. In 1983, some twenty farmers banded together to form the Israel Bio-Organic Agriculture Association (IBOAA). Today the Association is some 200 growers strong and is a full-fledged member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement. Produce supplied by certified IBOAA growers is cultivated according to rigorous bio- organic principles: soil fertility is maintained through balanced organic nutrition and monitored plant rotation; insects, pests and disease are controlled solely by biological means, such as laboratory-bred natural enemies; produce is never treated after harvesting; and natural resources are carefully conserved. Furthermore, greenhouses are heated only by the sun’s rays and water is strictly rationed, using Israel’s advanced irrigation techniques. Nearly 1,500 hectares of land are currently used for bio-organic production in Israel, and a number of high-quality organically-grown products, such as carrots, already account for a sizable portion of Israel’s agricultural export.

Legal Framework

Pesticide control is governed by several legislative tools under the responsibility of different enforcement authorities.

The Plant Protection Law, 1956, grants the Minister of Agriculture authority, following consultation with an advisory interdisciplinary committee, to regulate the import, sale, distribution and packaging of pesticides, fertilizers and other materials. The law authorizes the Minister of Agriculture to regulate the use of pesticides, to require a permit for their use, to promulgate regulations on the safe use of pesticides and to forbid or limit the use of pesticides deemed dangerous to human health and the environment.

The Animal Diseases Ordinance, designed to prevent the spread of animal diseases, is under the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture. Regulations dealing with chemical preparations for the control of animal diseases were promulgated under this law in 1982.

Public Health Regulations dealing with pesticide residues in food were promulgated in 1991. The regulations, under the responsibility of the Minister of Health, establish standards for maximum permissible levels of pesticides in food products.

The Hazardous Substances Law, 1993, which establishes, inter alia, poison permit requirements for all businesses dealing with hazardous materials, has paved the way for more efficient supervision of pesticide storehouses throughout the country.

Water Regulations promulgated in 1991 prohibit the rinsing of sprayers of chemical and/or biological substances into water sources and forbid aerial spraying of such substances for agricultural purposes near a water source.

The Public Health Ordinance of 1940, which authorizes the Ministry of the Environment to eliminate nuisances from the confines of a local authority, and Licensing of Businesses regulations, which incorporate conditions on the environmentally-sound operations of cowsheds and rendering plants, provide additional legislative tools in the control of pollution arising from improper agricultural practices.