Agricultural research body says planned budget cuts will force it to halt activities

Volcani Institute fears having to renege on local, international research contracts, face lawsuits demanding return of funds, if Knesset approves amended 2024 budget

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

An aerial view of the Volcani Institute. (Yigal Elad, Wikipedia)
An aerial view of the Volcani Institute. (Yigal Elad, Wikipedia)

With the government set to vote this week on an amended 2024 budget, Israel’s world-renowned agricultural research body, the Volcani Institute, warned Sunday that if a planned cut of over 20 percent to its budget was approved, it would freeze all research work and have to renege on national and international research contracts worth tens of millions of shekels.

Last year, according to sources at the institute, NIS 320 million ($88 million) was budgeted for the institute. But following the war that broke out in response to Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw 1,200 people killed, mostly civilians, and 253 kidnapped, the budget was reduced to NIS 304 million ($84 million).

Before the war, the government had planned a 2024 budget for the institute of NIS 343 million ($94.7 million), the sources added. Current Finance Ministry plans are to reduce this to NIS 277 million ($76.5 million), they said.

If the new cuts are approved, the sources warned, the institute would also have to cut 24 research posts this year by not filling vacancies and not replacing people who have retired.

The institute falls under the purview of the Agriculture Ministry, which funds its salaries and ongoing costs.

By contrast, funds for research — currently standing at around NIS 100 million  ($27.6 million) — come from local and international research funds, organizations and commercial companies.

Illustrative: A farmer drives a tractor pulling a pollination device during a demonstration at an avocado orchard near Kibbutz Eyal in the center of Israel, April 24, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The sources said that ongoing research activity was already grinding to a halt because there was no money to buy new materials for the various research units.

According to a press release from the institute, the initiatives that would stop if the cut was approved include the national seed bank and the state laboratory which checks the quality of seeds traded in Israel and exported overseas. Also affected would be the national center for gene editing in agriculture, the country’s only institute for agricultural engineering, and the institute for the research of agricultural produce after harvesting, which develops methods for maintaining the quality of fruit and vegetables and reducing post-harvest losses.

Prof. Avi Sadka, who chairs the board of the research faculty, said that Israel had enjoyed a long tradition of excellence in agriculture, which had contributed to the economy and the country’s reputation as a center for agricultural innovation.

“Now, of all times, the challenges of rehabilitation following the war in the north and the south demand a national emergency program answering the needs of food security, preparation for extreme climate change and technological improvements that Volcani Institute researchers know how to produce,” said Sadka.

In a letter sent to the Finance Ministry earlier this month, Dr. Shmuel Asoulin, the institute’s acting head of agricultural research, wrote that the institute had financial obligations to national and international research funds, public and private organizations and commercial companies that had invested NIS 100 million in joint projects.

Should the cut be implemented, the institute would not be able to meet its contractual obligations and would face lawsuits demanding that the funds be returned, Asoulin warned.

Founded in 1921, the institute, located in Rishon Lezion, focuses in particular on arid-zone agriculture to help water-scarce Israel achieve among the highest levels of agricultural output in the world.

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