What we can learn from smart Israel's ag challenges

Smart Israel's ag successes and challenges worth studying


Israel's challenges drive its agricultural sector to do more with less


Israel is an unlikely place to farm. It's a nation defined by dry conditions.

Half the country's 22,000 square kilometres are desert, while most of the rest receives an average rainfall ranging up to just 100 millimetres - in just three or four months each year.

Geopolitically, Israel is surrounded by less than friendly neighbours and the number of farmers has been dwindling year on year.

John Maher

John Maher

So it was remarkable for me, on an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce study tour to Israel earlier this month, to see exactly why Israel is leading the world in agribusiness innovation.

It turns out Israel's challenges actually drive its success.

Its agricultural industry knows how to do more with less.

Israel's limited land mass (it's a third of the size of Tasmania) and limited water have forced it to pool its resources and find innovative ways to produce more food, while the hostile neighbourhood has forced them to become self-reliant and united.

Israel has a history of communal farming with its kibbutz, so uniting for the common good is in Israeli farmers' DNA.

The country has a population of just 8.7 million, so, with such a small domestic market its farmers must think globally and focus simultaneously on domestic markets and exports to be profitable.

It has a world-leading water system nationalised to remove competition and ensure agriculture has ample access to water.

Israel leads the world in citrus exports, while vegetables, cotton and grains are all major crops.

The Minister of Strategic Affairs says the country recycles 90 per cent of its waste water, channelling most of this into agriculture through world-leading technology.

It has one unified government agriculture department led by a chief scientist, however, it does appear to be a country uninhibited by agripolitics and division among the commodities.

For every $1 the office of the chief scientist spends on agriculture R&D, it is believed Israel receives $4 to $5 dollars return - John Maher, Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation

The government spends about $200 million a year on agricultural research and development, mostly partnering with commercial enterprises.

And importantly, it allocates funding to specific choke points of productivity in the agriculture supply chain.

The result is the greatest common good for farming.

By contrast, the Australian Government spends $300 million a year on agriculture R&D, but this is diluted across 14 commodities, severely limiting its ability to tackle bigger issues.

For every $1 the office of the chief scientist spends on agriculture R&D, it is believed Israel receives $4 to $5 dollars return.

Israel is becoming renowned for its agriculture innovation, largely thanks to a thriving, well-funded start-up culture.

Research, development 

Each year, Israel spends more than $6 per capita on research and development in agriculture.

That's more than the $5.80 the US spends, and it dwarfs the 12 cents a head spent here in Australia.

Venture capitalists spend $6 billion on start-ups in Israel and produce 1000 new start-ups a year, and are strongly supported by government and Israel's seven universities.

In Australia we are lucky to see $1 billion spent annually on start-ups.

The most telling factor in Israel's attitude to agribusiness is its acceptance of risk and failure as necessary to increasing productivity and profitability - John Maher

Interestingly, the agtech we saw being developed was not overly complex. It was, however, practical.

The incubator programs we saw in action were dedicated to solving immediate problems.

Perhaps the most telling factor in Israel's attitude to agribusiness is its acceptance of risk and failure as necessary to increasing productivity and profitability.

Failure is not something to be ashamed of.

Primed for a challenge

The government estimates that for every failed start-up another four or five spring up providing employment and value to the state.

Many of the people we met in agtech had spent the past three years of their lives in national service, including Israeli's elite intelligence unit, and were primed for the next challenge.

They had commercially sound business plans and exit strategies in place.

It made sense to hear that agriculture in Israel had increased productivity annually over the past two decades, while Australia's agriculture productivity has stalled over the same time.

Study tours are invaluable experiences, to see what drives industry, what sets others apart.

In Australian agribusiness we must learn to embrace risk and failure, and establish a more unified approach to research, development and innovation to take advantage of the opportunities ahead.

  • John Maher is a chief executive officer of the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and a director of Agribusiness Australia
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