From the blossoming mango orchards of Haryana state to the drip-irrigated vegetable nurseries of Gujarat state, Israeli agricultural know-how has become a staple resource on farms across the Indian subcontinent.

“Undoubtedly, agriculture is at least one of the two main pillars in India-Israel relations – definitely the main pillar from the civilian angle,” said Gil Haskel, head of MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation in the Foreign Ministry.

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Experts believe the highly anticipated visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July will boost an already strong agricultural partnership between the countries, paving the way for new joint ventures in an ever-evolving industry.

Describing agriculture as “a key factor in the Indian economy and Indian livelihood,” Haskel said Modi is well aware of this fact and is investing significant funds in developing the sector.

“We want to use this visit – apart from it being very symbolically historic – as a cornerstone for the upgrading of these relations, specifically in the agricultural sector,” Haskel told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week.

Across India today, 15 of 27 planned Israeli “Centers of Excellence” are already thriving, showcasing Israeli agricultural expertise and providing Indian farmers with a value chain of know-how and practical tools. The Centers of Excellence are the fruits of the 2008 Indo-Israel Agriculture Project to which India contributes the physical infrastructure and Israel the innovation.

Overseeing the project are a number of bodies, including MASHAV; the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi; and the Agriculture Ministry’s CINADCO: The Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation. From the Indian side, partners include the Agriculture Ministry’s Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture, as well as many state and federal governmental authorities.

The Centers of Excellence have become so popular on both a domestic and regional scale that they continuously attract guests from neighboring nations, including countries that have no contact whatsoever with Israel such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

“The idea during [Modi’s] visit is to sign a joint action plan that will specify the exact activity that both countries are planning in these Centers of Excellence and ways to upgrade these Centers of Excellence in the next three years,” Haskel said.

The terms of such an action plan, which Haskel said he could not specify at the moment, are under negotiation. During a visit by the Indian Agriculture Ministry’s director-general to Israel last week, however, both sides began identifying a number of key elements that are important to further developing the Indian agriculture sector, he added.

Also last week, Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador in New Delhi, organized two days of brainstorming sessions with Indian and Israeli officials, academics and professionals to determine some of the next steps for the partners in both agriculture and water management.

“We don’t come with a recipe. We don’t come saying, ‘We have our experience from back home and let us tell you what you should have in India,’” Carmon told the Post.

Becoming a “think-tank” for those two days, the Israeli and Indian officials strategized about how they might best combine their respective areas of expertise to plan for “the next 25 years” of agricultural partnerships, he said.

“It is a dialogue,” Carmon said. “Usually, development comes from a demand-driven direction and not from not the foreigners who ‘know better,’ so to speak.”

Both Carmon and Haskel, as well as CINDACO head Yakov Poleg, identified water – and its management, conservation and reuse – as the next big focus area for the Israeli and Indian partners, both within the agricultural sector and beyond.

The officials also stressed the need to recruit members of the private sector to join forces with the government bodies to advance existing and future collaborative projects.

Only by taking this direction can the partners “have an impact in such a huge country like India,” Carmon said.

The Centers of Excellence are already “seeds of success, operation and cooperation” that are embracing new types of technologies – attitudes that are spreading to farms nearby these hubs, according to Poleg.

Yet, he and his colleagues agreed that integrating members of the private sector into this model will be key to the long-term vision of the partners.

“People here and in India are looking at what is the next step – how to convert these Centers of Excellence, which are centers of Israeli knowledge, into commercially viable business models,” Poleg said.

In Poleg’s mind, the Indian and Israeli partners must work to promote business-to-business cooperation through the existing Centers of Excellence, with an emphasis on local production and the involvement of local Indian companies.

While there are many ways to potentially involve the private sector in the centers, Poleg suggested introducing new crop varieties – such as those developed by the Israeli Agricultural Research Organization’s Volcani Center – and marketing them to the local business sector. Doing so would require arranging the necessary legal framework, as such intellectual property is easy to copy, but would enable the launch of a whole new chain of technologies alongside the crops, he said.

“Modi’s visit will energize the next stage of agricultural cooperation,” Poleg continued. “It will definitely encourage both governments to think more creatively about how to move to the next step – how to upgrade these existing Centers of Excellence, how to promote business-to-business in these Centers of Excellence.”

The visit, Carmon added, is also particularly historical when looking back at the 25 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and India – most of which were characterized by relatively low visibility. While Israel has long been appreciated and admired by India for helping develop the latter’s economy, food, water and security sectors, only recently did high level officials really begin visiting one and other in the public eye, he explained.

“In practice, we are doing so many things together,” Carmon said. “The visit will symbolize this and talk about where we stand now and where we want to go beyond those 25 years.”


Trump picks Sonny Perdue for agriculture secretary

Donald Trump has chosen former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue to be his secretary of agriculture, completing a protracted search with implications for how the president-elect plans to deliver on his promises to the army of rural voters widely credited with helping him win the election.

A transition official confirmed the pick — the final traditional Cabinet department chief to be selected — which could be formally announced as early as Thursday.

Perdue, a former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party before governing Georgia for two terms from 2003 to 2011, has a strong agricultural background, having grown up on a farm and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. As governor of Georgia, he also took conservative stances on immigration and voting rights and drew national headlines for holding a public vigil to pray for rain in 2007 amidst a crippling drought.

Although Perdue’s Georgia is not among the nation’s top 10 agricultural states, it is home to 42,000 farms, with a strong focus in the cattle industry.

Perdue’s pick heads off abundant speculation that Trump was seeking a Latino for the job and aligns with the desires of Trump’s influential agricultural advisory committee, empaneled during the 2016 election and comprising influential Republican representatives, state officials and representatives of the industry. Members of this group reportedly disapproved strongly of Trump’s early consideration of a Democrat, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, for the position. Perdue was a member of the advisory committee.

By picking Perdue, Trump has passed on appointing any Latinos to his Cabinet, the first time Cabinet meetings will lack someone from the nation’s largest minority population since 1988. That’s the year Lauro F. Cavazos became Ronald Reagan’s last education secretary and the first Latino ever nominated to the Cabinet.

Asked about the lack of Latino officials in the top ranks of the Trump administration, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that Trump “has continued to seek out the best and the brightest to fill his Cabinet, but I don’t think that that’s the total reflection. We’ve got 5,000 positions. I think you’re going to see a very, very strong presence of the Hispanic community in his administration.”

Spicer urged reporters to look at the diversity of Trump’s senior White House staffers, but there are currently no Latinos appointed to senior positions. (Trump has yet to name a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, which has been a Cabinet-rank position in some administrations.)

Eric Tanenblatt, who was Perdue’s first chief of staff in the Georgia governor’s office, has argued that Trump and Perdue have a great deal in common, citing Perdue’s conversion to a Republican shortly before winning the Georgia governorship in 2002. He became the first Republican governor in the state in generations.

“As a successful governor, Perdue has the requisite experience to direct a massive bureaucracy of the sort necessary to conduct the Department’s many programs; as a southern governor and state lawmaker, he’s directly shaped agricultural policy and presided over a state with a $74-billion agricultural sector; and as a businessman with deep experience in agribusiness, he knows the challenges facing today’s farmers,” Tanenblatt said in a statement Wednesday night.

Although not one of the higher-profile Cabinet posts, Trump’s pick of an agriculture secretary took on added significance because his victory was bolstered by several swing states with large agricultural industries including Iowa, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Trump has said that environmental regulations are “undermining our incredible farmers,” and some observers expect cuts to environmental and conservation programs at the Agriculture Department on his watch, as a Republican-controlled Congress moves to pass a new farm bill.

“It should be no surprise that the incoming Trump administration, which has proposed putting executives from Big Food and Big Oil in top cabinet positions, would pick someone like Governor Perdue – who has received taxpayer-funded farm subsidies – to lead the Department of Agriculture,” the Environmental Working Group said in a statement Wednesday night. “It’s certainly hard to imagine that a former fertilizer salesman will tackle the unregulated farm pollution that poisons our drinking water, turns Lake Erie green, and fouls the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.”

Many of the core tensions of the presidential campaign run through the agricultural sector: It tends to depend on immigrant labor, and it tends to benefit from and support free trade. For instance, the American Farm Bureau Federation, a top agricultural group, is a big supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, writing that “annual net farm income will increase by $4.4 billion, driven by an increase of direct U.S. agricultural exports of $5.3 billion per year upon full implementation of the TPP agreement.” Trump has staunchly opposed the trade agreement.

How Perdue will play a role in resolving these contradictions remains unclear, but he signed legislation in Georgia that sought to crack down on illegal immigration and drew widespread protests. As for trade, Perdue founded the Atlanta-based company Perdue Partners LLC after his governorship ended, promising to help companies find “new opportunities to sell American products and services abroad.”

The economics of agriculture are particularly pronounced at the moment, with net farm income having declined for three straight years now, from a high of over $120 billion in 2013 down to an expected $66.9 billion in 2016. A major question is likely to be whether, in this context, Congress and the new administration will support more government spending to help soften the blow to the sector.

Two key agricultural industries, cotton and dairy, are seeking government aid in the face of difficult market conditions, and changes to the programs affecting these commodities would likely only increase U.S. agricultural spending further. Both of these industries are strongly represented in Perdue’s Georgia, which is where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Perdue himself grew up on a farm where cotton was grown.

If confirmed, Perdue will head a sprawling agency with a $155 billion annual budget and close to 100,000 employees. This makes it one of the largest federal departments, and one that includes branches ranging from the U.S. Forest Service to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and duties ranging from co-publishing the U.S. Dietary Guidelines to running the school lunch program.

The agency naturally supports the U.S. agricultural industry and rural communities, which it does through fighting barriers to agricultural exports, making loans to farmers starting out businesses, supporting the ethanol industry, and operating an enormous crop insurance program that paid out $64 billion from 2009 through 2015.

The agency also plays a major role in food safety, overseeing processing of meat in the United States (the Food and Drug Administration handles food safety related to fruits and vegetables).

Under the Obama administration, the Agriculture Department also became heavily involved in environmental initiatives such as the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector (ruminant livestock, like cows, are a huge source of methane emissions to the atmosphere). And the former secretary, Tom Vilsack, made increasingly loud rumbles about the explosion of the portion of the Forest Service’s annual budget that has been spent on fighting more and more wildfires — a trend linked to climate change.

Israel Exports Agricultural Know-How to Africa

Israel is in a desert but manages its water to ensure adequate supplies for agriculture and home use, while many African countries that have enough water lack the ability to get it where it is needed. So residents of African nations have converged on Tel Aviv to learn  Israeli techniques of water management.

In Israel’s southern desert village of Netiv HaAsara, Ovadia Keidar told African farmers and students about how he has been able to raise flowers and vegetables.

“We use a system which we call drip irrigation system, [in] which we flow water in a pipe underneath the plant,” said Keidar, 74. Black pipes with special walls “supply the plant with the water and the nutrients. And the nutrients come by pump through the system, and it comes proportional to the quantity of water that we supply.”

Yakov Poleg, director of Israel’s Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation, said his country, though small, narrow and semiarid with most of its land either desert or mountain, has been able to make its small quantity of surface and underground water sufficient for farming.

He said growers were also showing the African visitors how 90 percent of the water used in towns is recycled for irrigation schemes.

“We take them to see the farms,” he said. “We want them to get acquainted with the problems of our farmers because, you know, farmers are farmers everywhere and they all have to overcome the same problems everywhere.

“Israel is far from being an optimal country in agricultural production. Half of the country is desert, the other half is hilly, yet we are far sufficient in food, vegetable, poultry. We are number one in the world in meat production. We no longer suffer from water shortages. It’s quite fascinating.”

Farmer Sylvanus Malungho from Angola said he would use the knowledge gathered in Israel to increase food production in his country, blessed with natural resources but still not able to feed all its citizens.

“We have everything in our country as natural conditions — we have water, we have land,” he said. “But the problem is that strategy to do this kind of work — that with 30 grams of seed, you can have 120 tons of tomatoes. This is very good, and we in Africa have to make that kind of partnership.”

Only 20 percent of Israel’s land area is arable, but the small state of 8 million people is a leading exporter of fresh produce and the most advanced agricultural technologies.