Farmers urge greater support for local agriculture

Amid virus, Israel has enough food available for foreseeable future — officials

Despite pandemic wreaking havoc on supply chain, country will have plenty of supplies through Passover and beyond by relying on produce grown here, according to agriculture experts

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Empty shelves at a supermarket in Tel Aviv. Israelis are stockpiling food as the government takes stricter precautions against the Corona virus, March 10, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)
Empty shelves at a supermarket in Tel Aviv. Israelis are stockpiling food as the government takes stricter precautions against the Corona virus, March 10, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)

Israel appears relatively well-placed to be able to feed its population through the coming months of the coronavirus crisis, officials said.

No shortages in fresh or dried produce are likely in the next few weeks, they said. Beyond that, too, Israel is in a good position to weather the various restrictions and obstacles, including those already imposed and others still possible looming — amid the battle to thwart the spread of the virus, although officials said insufficient workers could lead to some shortages of citrus fruit. After Passover, imported fresh fish could also be in short supply.

Israel holds certain emergency food supplies, which are not expected to be needed in the foreseeable future.

Despite moves by the Agriculture Ministry, seen as pernicious by local farmers, to import certain items that can be homegrown, the country is more or less self-sufficient in fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs and poultry meat, and has sufficient supplies of beef to see it through the upcoming Passover holidays and on until May, the officials noted.

On Wednesday, Agriculture Minister Tzachi Hanegbi attended an emergency meeting with heads of rural regional councils, agricultural organizations, agricultural produce boards and agricultural settlement movements to review food provision in the shadow of the coronavirus.

“I believe that Israeli agriculture will actually prosper out of this crisis,” said Hanegbi, who took over the agriculture ministry in January.

He told the confab that farmers could supply everything needed in fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk and poultry. “But in other products, such as imported salmon, a shortage is expected in a while. We will need to organize together with all growers and importers to maintain supply continuity and food security for the entire population, even if the disease spreads.

“I believe that out of this crisis, Israeli agriculture will grow,” he added, “because the more we meet the goals we set for ourselves, the more its vitality and capabilities will no longer be questioned.”

With its clement weather, variety of altitudes and climates, and plentiful technological know-how, Israel’s agriculture enjoys conditions that are widely regarded as conducive to dependable food production.

‘Cut dependence on imports to ensure food security’

Shay Hajaj, chairman of the Regional Councils Center and head of the Merhavim Regional Council in the southern Israeli Negev, said, “We can tell the citizens of Israel today that they can calm down.

“We don’t expect any shortage of fresh produce in the run-up to Passover (from April 8 to 15), or Independence Day (April 28-29),” he added.

Agriculture Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (L) and Shai Hajaj, chairman of the Regional Councils Center and head of the Merhavim Regional Council in southern Israel, at an emergency confab about food production in the shadow of coronavirus, March 11, 2020. (Courtesy)

But he added: “In order to ensure fresh food in Israel, local produce must be relied upon rather than imports and quotas should be increased for [Israeli] agriculture. Farmers can increase domestic production and reduce dependence on imports. Together, we will build an agricultural policy that ensures fresh food security in Israel from now on.”

Shortages of citrus fruit, fresh fish possible

Surveying the various branches of agriculture, Hajaj said that problems were expected with the citrus harvest, due to a shortage of workers. Imported fresh fish could go into short supply after the Passover holiday, he added. Beef supplies were sufficient for the next six months, but problems could occur after that if there were disruptions to imports.

Milk producers were asking for increased quotas to produce more so as to have a surplus in case workers fell ill or had to be isolated because of the disease, and also to able to help Israel’s neighbors if necessary.

Oranges being washed, prepared, and packed at the Mehadrin factory in southern Israel, November 28, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/FLASH90)

State’s essential emergency supplies not needed at this time

Israel holds essential emergency food products, the Ministry of Economy confirmed to The Times of Israel. These include sugar, rice, flour, baby food and oil.

“These products serve as food security for Israeli residents in times of emergency,” a statement said. “In the current state of the coronavirus crisis, there is no shortage of food products, and certainly not the products mentioned.”

The statement added, “Most of the food consumed is produced in Israel and there are no problems in the import sector, so there is no shortage of other food or of consumer products such as toiletries.”

Foreign workers in a cabbage field in southern Israel, October 6, 2016. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Zvi Alon, director general of the Plant Council, which represents and advances fruit and vegetable growers’ interests, told The Times of Israel that Israeli producers supply more than 90 percent of demand, with farmers growing more or less the same amounts per capita today as they did half a century ago, although with fewer farmers and less water, thanks to technological expertise.

But he sharply criticized the policies of the Agriculture Ministry over recent years to import certain fruits and vegetables from overseas during periods when local prices rose, saying it was “killing” Israeli farming. Last year, for example, around 35,000 tons (68 million lbs.) of tomatoes out of the 170,000 tons (340 million lbs.) in total supplied to markets came from overseas, particularly hitting the Gaza envelope communities, which usually produce 70% of Israel’s tomatoes.

Alon said that farmers who made losses during some months needed higher prices during others to ensure a reasonable income. Successive annual OECD reports showed that average Israeli fruit and vegetable prices were lower than those of other developed nations, he added.

If imports dried up because of coronavirus, Israeli agriculture could step up to produce more, but only with financial help, Alon said. To date, the Israeli government is ranked among the stingiest of all OECD nations when it comes to providing farmers with financial support, he charged.

Illustrative: Sides of beef and grilled veggies at an Israeli cowboys’ BBQ at Bat Yaar Ranch in the Biriya Forest in northern Israel. (Haim Azulay/Flash 90)

Eviatar Dotan, Director General of the Cattle Breeders Association, did not foresee a crisis in the milk or beef sectors. Israeli farmers produce 95% of the country’s milk, he told The Times of Israel, and problems could only arise if the government interfered with the import of cattle feed by delaying ships at Israeli ports.

There was enough frozen and fresh beef to see the country through until May, including the Passover holidays, he added.

Agriculture Ministry breakdowns for beef produced in 2018 — the latest year for which such figures are available — showed that 46% of all beef products came from frozen imports, 27% from live calves shipped into the country for fattening and slaughter [mainly from Portugal and Australia], 17% from local cattle farms and 10% from chilled meat imports.

In this Honey Chicken recipe, the olive oil, soy sauce, garlic and pepper temper the honey perfectly. (photo credit: Stuart Schnee/JTA)
Honey chicken. (Stuart Schnee/JTA)

Motti Elkabetz, who heads the Association of Poultry Growers, did not envisage problems either. Local egg-producers — two-thirds of whom are  located on the Israel-Lebanon border — produce all of the country’s supplies, he said, the only exception being during the peak periods of Passover and Sukkot for which additional supplies were imported.

The country is also self-sufficient when it comes to chickens and turkeys. The only fear, if the virus gets much worse, is disruption to the supply of imported feed and breeding hens, he said. There are enough breeding hens in the country for another year.

Dried products being snatched from retail shelves

On the retail side, Osem — one of the main retail supermarket suppliers — said in a statement that shoppers were buying much more than usual of dried products such as pasta, breakfast cereal, cookies, snacks, Israeli couscous (“petitim”), ketchup and the Tivol company’s ready-made plant-based foods.

An Osem employee stacks the shelves at a Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem, February 20, 2020. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Our factories are working at maximum output and are focussing on supplying the most essential products in light of the extra demand,” the statement said. “We’ve beefed up Osem’s logistical and distribution systems and we’re working around the clock, including on Fridays and on Saturday nights, after the Sabbath has gone out.”

More home deliveries were being carried out and there were more distribution trucks, the statement added. Delivery times to retail outlets had been extended into the evening and night-time hours, whereas during normal times, they took place in the mornings only.

Shufersal, the largest supermarket chain in the country, said it was looking to employ an extra 400 workers immediately to cope with increased online order deliveries.

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