Thousands flock to Israel’s ‘Woodstock of agricultural technology’

Thousands flock to Israel’s ‘Woodstock of agricultural technology’

Advances in food production and water conservation were on display this week at AgriTech 2012

AgriTech 2012 (Photo credit: Courtesy)
AgriTech 2012 (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Thousands converged on Tel Aviv this week to learn about technologies that help farmers increase output, enhance efficiency, and make the most of water resources.

This year’s AgriTech event features over 250 exhibitors, and nearly 30,000 people were expected to visit during the two-day show at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds. Visitors from abroad — some 5,000 of them — came from South America, nearly all of the Far East (including sizable delegations from China and India) and just about every country in sub-Saharan Africa, said event chairman Dani Meiri.

There are even unofficial delegations from Arab countries, Meiri told The Times of Israel. “It’s fair to say that Israel’s agricultural technology industry is pretty much immune to the ‘boycott Israel’ movement.” Most countries are desperate to increase their food production, and are perfectly willing to take advantage of Israeli technology, no matter what their politics.

Altogether, there were 80 official delegations from foreign countries, with the biggest from India, which sent 2,000 farmers to the show, with over 1,200 alone from the western Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

In attendance were CEOs and entrepreneurs of companies large and small working in all areas of agritech, including climate systems, hybrid seed production, cattle and poultry monitoring and control, genetics, packaging and storage to enhance freshness, and more.

In 2011, Israel exported $3.4 billion in agricultural products, the Israel Export Institute announced this week, an increase of 18% over the previous year. Over half of those exports went to Asia, the institute said.

One significant Israeli agricultural accomplishment is technology to enhance milk production. “Israeli cows are the world’s most productive, with cows able to yield up to 12,000 liters of milk annually,” said Meiri. “Farmers come from all over the world to learn how we do it, and we export that technology as well. Right now we have a huge project in Vietnam, where we are working to improve production of 32,000 cows.”

It’s not just about technology, though. “There are many places where farmers can get what we produce,” said Meiri. “The difference between Israel and other places is that our people are willing to get their hands dirty. I have been told by farmers in several countries that the technology people there have an attitude, and will just sell a setup, with the farmer having to deal with installation and making things work. Israeli companies, on the other hand, sell a lot of turnkey projects, and go into the field to make sure things work properly before leaving.”

AgriTech this year included for the first time a conference specifically for investors, called AgriVest, where private investors and the heads of some large venture capital funds came to hear about investment opportunities. “There were over 100 investors there, some of them in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars, and most of whom have never done business in Israel before,” said Meiri. “They were extremely impressed with what they saw, and I am sure some great deals will come out of the conference.”

Steve Rhodes, with the Mofet Venture Accelerator, which is very active in agritech, related that one of the investors came to his company’s booth at AgriTech enthused by the scene. “He called the show the ‘Woodstock of agricultural technology,’ he was just so excited,” said Rhodes.

But foreign investment can spell the end of Israeli development, said Meiri. “Multinationals swoop in and buy up Israeli companies before they have a chance to develop into large companies themselves. They keep the research and development here, but they move the production outside the country, to cheaper venues.”

Even large companies eventually get swallowed up, Meiri added. “Right now there are three very large seed companies that are about to be sold to seed giants from the US and Europe.”

Many Israeli agritech start-ups feel they have no choice but to accept a buyout because it will take them a great deal of time to grow by themselves. “This is where government policy can help,” Meiri said, to “encourage them to keep their tech at home. It’s great that we can help the world grow more and better food, but it would really be great if we could do that from home.”

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