In the twelve years following the establishment of the State in 1948, cultivated land area increased from 150,000 to 400,000 hectares about a fifth of Israel’s land area (Figure 13). Thereafter, cultivation increased far less rapidly, stabilizing at 440,000 hectares in the early 1980s, while at the same time shifting somewhat from central Israel to peripheral areas. Over half of all cultivated land is irrigated. In the first quarter century of the State’s existence, output grew at an average of 6% annually; by the end of the 1980s growth in this sector had slowed to 1% (Figure 14).
The most severe constraint on Israeli farmers is the lack of water. This deficiency influences agriculture in two ways: first, by limiting the amount of land which can be cultivated; and second, by inducing farmers to use both land and water as efficiently as possible. Toward this latter goal, highly mechanized, high-input methods and water-saving irrigation systems are employed. Israel, for example, has pioneered drip irrigation and other techniques to increase water efficiency (Figure 15). Drip irrigation has proven so advantageous that by 1988 it was the method chosen for over half of all irrigated land in Israel.
This and other irrigation techniques have gone a long way toward improving water use efficiency; but even these Israeli innovations have their downside. Israeli scientists, anxious to stretch the country’s water resources as far as possible, have developed techniques for recycling wastewater for agricultural purposes. They have also developed crop strains which can be grown with brackish water. Both these innovations produce short-term gains, but may cause long-term environmental damage. Repeated irrigation with brackish water increases soil salinity, eventually making it unsuitable for agriculture a problem which farmers in the Jezreel Valley and in the Arava already face. Moreover, salty residues are washed into the groundwater, damaging the quality of water in the coastal aquifer (where overpumping has accelerated the process) and other sources. The increased reuse of treated effluent, however, may be both economically and environmentally beneficial, so long as the level of treatment is high.
Israeli farmers use relatively large quantities of pesticides and herbicides to increase productivity as well (Figures 16 and 17). The intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides damages water, soil, and human health, as chemicals are washed into the water system, and toxic residues remain on produce.
In years to come, two factors will contribute to the reduction of fertilizer use. Firstly, economic constraints and technological development will facilitate more efficient uses of fertilizers, better monitoring and application techniques, and crop-specific fertilizers. Secondly, increased public demand for organic produce, which can be promoted by public education, can contribute to decreased fertilizer use.
Although the use of certain highly toxic, slowly decomposing substances such as DDT has been discontinued, similar substances will only be taken off the market when suitable substitutes are found. Promising trends include the use of bio-pesticides, rapidly decomposing substances, selective toxicity pesticides, and increased application of integrated pest control methods by Israeli farmers. Integrated pest management makes use of selected organisms for biological control of specific pests, thereby increasing efficiency and reducing environmental damage.
The farming industry will have to work hand in hand with environmental policy-makers if sustainable, environmentally-sound practices are to be effectuated in the future. The international control of pesticide use, and environmental and health standards imposed by an increasingly unified international market should provide impetus for inter-sectorial and inter-ministerial cooperation. Innovations in greenhouse technology, and developments in genetics and biology, may permit a more efficient and hopefully more environmentally sustainable system of agricultural production.