Israel’s drip irrigation pioneer says his tech feeds a billion people

As his firm prepares to unveil world's biggest project in India, Rafi Mehudar, one of this year's Independence Day torch-lighters, says the battle against famine is far from over

An aerial view of Alicante, Spain, where a Netafim system recycles wastewater and distributes it via a drip-irrigation system, watering all public areas in the southern Spanish town. (Courtesy Netafim)

As the world’s population grows, governments around the world are questioning how the billions of new mouths will be fed. The answer, according to Israeli inventor Rafi Mehudar, is right under their feet – in the drip irrigation technology he perfected for water tech firm Netafim.

Now found in farms around the world, Netafim’s irrigation and watering technology is already helping feed hundreds of millions, and, according to Mehudar, “it’s the only technology that has been proven to significantly increase the supply of food. We are already saving large parts of humanity from starving, and this is just the beginning.”

Over forty years after Netafim acquired the rights to the pressure regulator, his first drip irrigation invention, Mehudar is being feted for his accomplishments with one of the greatest honors bestowed by the state – the lighting of one of the twelve ceremonial torches that inaugurate Independence Day in Israel on Wednesday night. The torches are usually lit by individuals who have made a significant contribution to Israeli life, with the theme this year focusing on individuals who have made “breakthrough innovations” in science, technology, business, and culture.

Israel is a small country, but Netafim, with which Mehudar has been working since 1972, is a company that operates on a world-wide scale. “Netafim has sold over 150 billon drip irrigation devices, which cuts down water use by up to 90%, allowing farmers to spend less on water and more efficiently use their resources,” Mehudar told the Times of Israel in an interview.

Most of the drip irrigation systems sold by Netafim today are embedded in pipes – a “solid state” system that farmers find much easier to install and work with, according to the company – and “if the pipes we sold annually were laid end to end, they would circle the world 100 times,” he said. “We save the world tens of billions of gallons of water a year. When I started working with Netafim, the company had three employees; today it has over 4,000 in 150 countries, and we are helping to feed nearly a billion people,” said Mehudar.

Rafi Mehudar (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Most Israelis have heard of Netafim, but many aren’t really aware of the impact the company has had on world agriculture, and many farmers who use drip irrigation don’t know much about the company that supplied it. Numerous studies name drip irrigation as a key ingredient “to have a significant impact on resources saving, cost of cultivation, yield of crops and farm profitability,” in India and elsewhere, according to Indian academics. As the world’s largest drip irrigation technology manufacturer, Netafim can take much of the credit for those results.

Besides drip irrigation systems, Netafim offers a wide variety of agricultural machinery and computerized sensor equipment that can read temperature, humidity, nutrient levels in the soil, whether a plant needs water, and other important data. The systems are controlled by software run from a server communicating with sensors in the field wirelessly, with the software providing specific instructions to each part of the system as to how much water should be dispensed, and the optimal time for that dispensing. Mehudar himself has developed over 50 products for the company, and holds over 400 world-wide patents for his technology.

A net greenhouse in Los Pinos, Mexico, the largest greenhouse tomato project in the country, developed with Israel’s Netafim drip irrigation and greenhouse technology (Photo credit: Courtesy Netafim)

While its products are sold throughout the world, it’s in the developing world that the company has had the most impact. Netafim products have been used in innumerable projects in Africa and Asia; in India alone, said Mehudar, the company has over 250,000 customers, most of them smallholder farmers who are eking out a living from their plots, in large part thanks to the fact that they do not have to spend a lot of money on expensive water.

The company recently inaugurated, via its Indian subsidiary, a drip-irrigation project in the Bagalkot district of India’s North Karnataka state, located in the country’s west. When completed, the Ramthal (Marol) integrated micro-irrigation project will cover nearly 30,000 acres, encompassing 22 villages and benefiting around 6700 farmers – making it the world’s largest single drip irrigation project.

First drip irrigation device in an old greenhouse, Kibbutz Hatzerim, Israel, 1967 (Photo credit: Courtesy Netafim)

But 42 years after he invented its modern form, picking up on the original system developed by Israeli water engineer Simcha Blass, drip-irrigation technology is still in its infancy, said Mehudar. “Only 5% of the world’s farmers are using it – most of them still rely on traditional flood irrigation,” in which fields are inundated with water. It works fine in areas where there is a lot of water or rainfall – but no so well in many of the marginal areas of the developing world, and not at all when drought strikes.

“Eventually farmers around the world are going to realize the advantages,” said Mehudar. “There will soon be twice as many mouths to feed in the world as there are now, and of all the much-discussed technologies out there – including genetic modification – the only technology that has been proven to expand the amount of available land for crop growing, including the semi-arid land we are going to need to grow the food to feed those people, is drip-irrigation technology. Netafim may be decades old, but this is just the beginning for our tech.”

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