Baseline of a Desecrated Land I: Food Supply

How Israel’s water and agricultural technologies don’t even work for Israel

California I hear has a big water problem. We in Israel don’t have a water problem. We use technology to solve it…” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to California Governor Jerry Brown in March 2014.

“If you were planning to grow a new strain of tomato—don’t do it, because there is no water. Stop planting. Stop sowing new seedlings. There’s no water.” Giora Shacham, Chairman of the Israeli Water Authority, to Jewish farmers at a December, 27, 2017 Israeli agriculture conference.


A new mythology has it that Israel can save American agriculture and cities from drought. To accept this is to ignore the wilderness instructor’s maxim: “In a survival situation the first thing you need is recognition.” Our situation is that we in America have 324 million people and our country exports more food every year than any country in the history of the planet. Israel has eight and a half million people, exports almost no food, is entirely dependent on imported food, and every indicator is screaming that the Jewish state ecosystem is a dying patient on the gurney.

We will mostly bypass what suffering Israeli water colonization has caused Palestinians.  Instead, this piece looks at what fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly calls ‘Shifting Baselines,’ where some good thing is degraded over time and each successive generation adopts what is in front of them as their baseline reality. At some point an environment emerges that would terrify our ancestors. We Americans should look hard and honestly at Mother Earth groaning under Zionism in today’s Israel and ask, ‘Does America, or any country desiring a good future, want to follow that road?’

Before we start, it helps to know that Israel is 1,600 square miles smaller than the state of Vermont, the West Bank is smaller than St. Lawrence county in New York state, and the entire Gaza Strip is about the size of Bakersfield, California.

To evaluate Israeli land and water use technologies, these twelve recognitions might serve as jumping off points for discussion.

1) Israel cannot feed itself.
2) Israel pretends desalination impacts don’t exist.
3) Israel takes Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian water.
4) Israel’s one and only large, natural water body may be gone within twenty years.
5) Over half of the Jordan river valley’s biodiversity is already gone.
6) Israel and the Occupied Territories are awash in human sewage.
7) West Bank/Israeli streams and groundwater are over exploited and drying up so completely that centuries old trees in the nature reserves are dying of thirst.
8) Israel’s water, forestry, agricultural and military technologies have compromised agricultural land to the point where half of it is depleted and at risk, pesticide use is highest in the OECD, the land is absorbing more heat, and, in the long run, drip irrigation may do more harm than good.
9) Israel is the Flint, Michigan of the Middle East with a history of spectacular toxic spills, dumped military/industrial carcinogens, hundreds of contaminated wells, hundreds of millions of tons of contaminated ground water, millions of tons of oil stored right on the beach, massive unregulated hazardous waste sites built above aquifers, and the world’s oldest nuclear reactor, sitting 18 miles from the Syria-African fault line—with 1,537 documented defects in its aluminum core.
10) Wine, war, industrial tourism, and an unwinnable competition with the faster growing Arab population are the water marks on Israel’s self-portrait.
11) Israel is stuck with being the love-child of 1950’s American water engineers and 1800’s ‘make the desert bloom’ fundamentalism.
12) Israel is a cautionary tale.

Baseline Recognitions

Recognition I: Israel can’t feed itself

“Israel is almost completely dependent on imports to meet its grain and feed needs… Total grain, feedstuff and soybean supply will total about 5.06 million tons.” USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Report, Israel Grain and Feed Annual 02.18.2015 by Gilad Shachar & Orestes Vasquez

Humanity uses most of its fresh water to grow food. Current estimates for Israel’s total annual water consumption run between 2¼ and 2½ billion cubic meters per year. An item missing from that buoyant assessment is the fact that life in the Jewish state depends on importing four times as much, over ten billion metric tons, of virtual water every year via container ships. Virtual water is J.A. Allen’s elegant concept that, instead of trying to understand the value of agricultural commodities in terms of carrots, steaks, bushels of wheat, or how much money those bring in, we should view farm products as compact, transportable carriers embedded with all of the water it took to grow them.

If we include the embedded water footprint of millions of tons of grains/feed/soybeans (GFS) as well as meat, dairy, fruit and other commodities to the equation, Israel’s total annual water requirement quintuples.

The agricultural water footprint for a given commodity includes green water (rainfall that ends up in the root zone), blue water (irrigation from surface and ground water), and grey water (water it takes to dilute agricultural runoff). Below are water footprints of some mainstay Israeli food imports for Market Year 2016.

(commodity in 1,000’s metric tons-Mt) X (tons water to grow a ton)=Water footprint

Corn                     1,515                                                   1,222                                   1,851,330
Wheat                  1,758                                                   1,827                                  3,211,866
Barley                     376                                                   1,977                                      743,352
Soybean Meal       135                                                    2,145                                     289,575
Rice, milled           115                                                    2,172                                     249,780
Sorghum                 30                                                   3,048                                       91,440
Rye                             4                                                    1,544                                         6,176
Rape seed meal     140                                                   1,115                                      156,100
Sunflower meal     240                                                 3,366                                     807,840
oil, rape seed           44                                                  4,301                                      189,244
oil, soy bean           374                                                 4,190                                   1,567,060
sugar, centrifugal  518                                                    865                                      448,070

total                                                                                                                               9,611,833
sources: USDA Foreign Agriculture Service Database. and The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Crops and Derived Crop Products. UNESCO-IHE, Institute of water education, Volume 1: Main Report. Value of Water Research Report Series No. 47.

  • This 9,701,833 Mt water footprint of foodstuffs multiplied by 1,000 tons—because the commodities in the first column are in units of one thousand tons—gives 9,701,833,000 Mt of water.

Now add Israeli beef imports which average over 75,000 metric tons/year. This is in carcass weight equivalent (CWE) which means the cow after it has been gutted and skinned, with the head, tail, hooves removed. About 70 percent of the CWE is red meat. To find the amount of water in 75,000 Mt of red meat we multiply CWE by 0.7, which gives 52,500 Mt of meat. Global average to raise one Mt of red meat is 15,400 Mt of water. Multiplying 52,500 Mt of meat by the 15,400 Mt of water it took to grow them, we get 808,500,000 metric tons of water sent to Israel every year in the form of red meat. That by itself is a third above Israel’s entire annual desalination production.

Add other agricultural imports like 46,000 tons of various protein powders, soup stock, cheese, fresh fruits, 80 million eggs per year, etc and we’re looking at a total virtual reservoir of over 10.5 billion tons of water that Israel does not have to draw from its own resources.

How much is 10.5 billion metric tons of water?

* It’s around 4 times larger than the entire annual national water consumption of Israel: the whole enchilada including domestic, industrial, meeting Israel’s agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians, etc.
* It’s enough to flood the entire Gaza Strip 28.8 meters (94.5 feet) deep. — [given that Gaza Strip is 365 square km and each square km = one million square meters] 10,500,000,000 cubic meters of water divided by 365,000,000 square meters] = 28.8 meters. 28.8 meters rounds to 94.5 feet.

*It’s enough to drain the Sea of Galilee dry more than 2½ times. (when the SoG is full—which it isn’t and hasn’t been for years.)  *Update: In 2020 due to a combination of no tourists because of Covid, and an unusually big rain year like the region got in the 1970’s [see part VIII ‘Desecrated Farmlands, cloud seeding’ in this series] Lake Kinneret did  fill up for the first time in decades. Predictions are: that won’t last.

*And it’s not enough. Israel’s population is growing at a rate of 1.58 percent per year. Grain imports are growing accordingly. By 2021 the country is predicted to require about 5.5 million tons of GFS alone. As the Mideast droughts continue import numbers will only increase.

The Food Security Index
At this juncture the alert Israel supporter might point with satisfaction to the Economist’s 2017 Global Food Security Index which placed Israel at 19th highest of 113 countries. Future factors, like global warming impacts, dropped Israel down to 24th place in the same report, but still, if the index is correct, either 19th or 24th would imply Israel is doing pretty well, wouldn’t it?
Or maybe not counting millions of Palestinians living there shifts the tally. A follow-up 2017 Economist report written with Italy’s Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, on the Food Security Index, gives an Israeli population of 8.5 million. That number implies Israeli Jewish colonists in the occupied territories (where Israel gets a third of its water and grows a lot of food) are included but the report doesn’t count 2.5 million food-insecure Palestinians who live on that same parcel of land, and also doesn’t include 2 million extremely food-insecure Palestinians in Gaza.
Alternatively, Israel’s place on the index may be artificially high because the index doesn’t adequately survey factors in the Jewish state like the scale of water pollution, erosion, and exhausted agricultural lands.
Then again, the list may just reflect the catastrophic condition of the rest of the world’s food supply. Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Hungary, Germany, Brazil and the United States supply most of Israel’s food imports. The index places four of these lower in food security than Israel, raising the question, ‘When your food security depends on distant places that are less food secure than you are, how secure is that?’
Israel’s food suppliers have weathered record breaking droughts on multiple years during the past decade. Their aquifers are dropping. Population stress, economic and political upheavals, and armed conflicts like those between Russia and Ukraine, can be expected to adversely impact grain production and distribution.
Another threat, peculiar to Israeli food security, is the growing worldwide boycott (BDS) of the country because of Israel’s 50+ years-long occupation of the Palestinian territories. If one or more of Israel’s food suppliers joins the boycott it will be a serious loss of calories with few, if any, other nations willing or able to take up the slack.

Before leaving this section, it’s fair to say that America imports agricultural products too, a lot of them, but according the USDA, they’re mostly from nearby Canada and Mexico, and mostly things we could get along without like coffee, spices, cut flowers, nursery stock, etc. rather than food we need to keep from starving.

Whatever happened to the early 1900’s Zionist agricultural model?
A good, simple measure of how well a country’s farming methods work is how well the farmers are doing. How many citizens work in agriculture? Do they earn a decent living? Are they viable? Are they happy with their choice of livelihood?
A hundred-twenty years ago when European Zionists began moving enmasse to Palestine to build their dream of a Jewish cooperative agricultural utopia, optimism was in the air. Most people, young to old, worked on the land. Their collaborative farms, kibbutsim and moshavim, were Jews-only community collectives. Other than the racist aspect it was a progressive experiment in many ways.
That social landscape has changed. In 2016 Yaron Solomon, Agricultural Union Settlement Department Director, pointed out that only 15,000 Israelis still live by farming and 20 percent of those are part-time. That’s less than a third as many farmers as there were in the 1980’s. The average Israeli farmer now is 62-years-old. Young people are leaving the land for better prospects. Says Solomon, “While the Israeli government is crowing about Israeli farmers in order to attract foreign investment, so that doors will be opened to them overseas, in Israel they are being trampled. Israel is using agricultural knowledge to promote its diplomatic relations and foreign relations, but its policy in recent years has a price, and in the future, Israel will have nothing to offer the world…The Government’s policy is slowly eliminating the small growers, and when there is no renewal of fields, there is a shortage of produce and the land becomes arid.”
Israeli farmers hold lively (for farmers) protests where they do things like smash tomatoes on the road out in front of the Knesset (Israeli parliament). Or, a bunch of them drive tractors through the streets of Jerusalem. Or, they hold up traffic at intersections. Their main complaints are inevitably water costs and water allotments.

Israel depends on other countries to grow its food even on farms inside Israel

If most Israelis are getting out of farming, who is working the remaining farms? Heavy, dangerous agricultural grunt labor, like planting, weeding, spraying pesticides, herbicides (commonly with no protective gear), setting up irrigation equipment, harvesting, and loading trucks, is accomplished by some 25,000 ‘guest workers’ from Thailand, who come to Israel on five-year contracts.
They work through extreme summer heat—greenhouses can be over 120 degrees Fahrenheit—and winter cold, especially at night, which the Thais aren’t adapted to. One hundred twenty-two Thai workers died in the five years between 2008 and 2013. Of those, 22 died for unknown causes because no autopsy was done. Five committed suicide. Forty-three formerly healthy, young Thai males died from something Israelis call, “sudden nocturnal death syndrome.” During the same period only 32 Israeli occupation troops died in military conflicts. Chances of dying at work, then, were about four times higher for Thai farm workers than Israeli soldiers.
Noa Shuer from the worker’s rights group Kav LaOved, said her organization did a survey of 500 Thai workers. None of them was being paid minimum wage. Instead Thai workers are told to sign a time sheet they can’t read because it’s in Hebrew. Almost none of them get a copy. They work up to seventeen hours a day, seven days a week with four days a year off. Workers have to pay a fee, sometimes over $10,000, to brokers to work in Israel. Room, board, income taxes, and national health care fees come out of their wages. Living conditions are often squalid with workers being packed into former animal sheds or sheds where farmers keep pesticides and other chemicals.
Jewish farm owners have tremendous power over Thai workers because they know the workers have to pay back broker fees and don’t want to go home with no money. Someone who makes trouble, like asking to be paid what he or she is supposed to get, can be sent packing back to Thailand with no way to collect what they’re owed. Workers might be assigned other duties besides farming. There are many allegations of dangerous living situations and abuse, including sexual abuse. Some workers had no toilet and were told to use the field out back. In one case there was a single female living among forty male workers with a shared shower. Another woman was awarded $53,000 after she proved the farmer she worked for used her as a sex slave.
Clearly the Thais aren’t counted in the 15,000 Israeli farm workers statistic. Neither are thousands of Palestinian workers who, bereft of their own lands, are forced by economic necessity to work on farms in Israel and the occupied territories. The Palestinians also work under bad conditions for lower pay, plus they have to wait at Israeli checkpoints, both going to the fields and returning home, some rise at 3 in the morning to get in line. Palestinians working for Israelis are supposed to have Israeli-issued permits. Those without permits can be paid less money and they can’t complain because they’re working illegally and they might get carted off to jail. For the most part the Israeli government looks the other way.

Hydro diplomacy
Israel’s water technology media stream flows across the digital landscape like the Amazon River. Its headwaters are a combination of hyperbole, wishful thinking, and putting a new hat on old technologies. Headlines like, “…Israel overcomes an old foe, drought’, ‘Israeli innovation could feed the world…’ ‘12 top ways Israel feeds the world’ are the sort of nonsense Americans expected from the National Enquirer back in the 1970’s but people still buy it. So much so that it would be no surprise to read, “Israeli scientists invent fish that can breathe underwater.” or “Israeli scientists discover a plant that makes its own food from sunshine.” AIPAC leader, turned pro-Israel water author, Seth Siegel provides a simple explanation for the media stream. An interviewer asked Mr. Siegel,

Q: “Do you think Israel’s use of water saving technology can help its relationship to the outside world?”
Siegel replied: “Absolutely. I make that point in the book. There are countries that vote against Israel in the UN but when it comes to water, they invite Israel in. It is hydro-diplomacy.” 
This is pretty much what the Agricultural Union’s Yaron Solomon quoted Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel saying, “Israeli agriculture is among the most advanced in the world, and we are taking steps to leverage this, both economically and politically…”

How realistic are claims that Israel has solved its water problems with technology? We need look no further than Israeli Agricultural Minister Uri Arial in December, 2017, when he called on the Israeli public to assemble at the Western Wall to PRAY FOR RAIN! Yes, as the fifth straight year of drought came knocking at the Damascus Gate, the country’s agricultural front-man was out there channeling Steve Martin in Leap of Faith. Nothing wrong with a good prayer, but ten thousand years of agriculture has shown we don’t want to bet the farm on it.

And yet here comes undaunted Israel with the audacity, the chutzpah, to claim that they can bail us out of water shortage at the very same time we are shipping them billions of tons of embedded water. American water infrastructure, especially in the West, is heavily subsidized by American taxpayers. The time approaches when we’ll have to evaluate the growing harm of sending Colorado River water, what’s left of the Ogallala Aquifer, and other precious dwindling water resources overseas.

(*Graphic at top by artist Kari Dunn

Baseline 1 Selected Sources:

10.2018 Tony Allen. Bio. King’s College, London, website. Good thumbnail description of the virtual water concept and the good Professor, who was awarded the Stockholm World Water Prize (2008), the Florence Monito Water Prize (2013), and the Monaco Water Prize (2013).
03/05/2014 Netanyahu Offers to Help Brown Manage California Drought Bloomberg News by JonathanFerziger
02.18.2015 USDA Foreign Agricultural Service: Israel Grain and Feed Annual: Prepared by Gilad Shachar & Orestes Vasquez. Approved by Ron Verdonk, Minister-Counselor [From the Executive Summary: “Israel is almost completely dependent on imports to meet its grain and feed needs…Total grain, feedstuff and soybean supply will total about 5.06 million tons.”] *Note that Gilad Shachar did excellent work and his graphs and charts were clear and concise. After 2015 another author took over. [I found subsequent reports are not as clear or complete on imports and, in 2016, contain odd biblical references that I’ve never seen in technical writing.] As a work-around, you can access import/export data for most commodities from any country at USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s amazing database here: There’s a row of blue bars across the screen. Choose ‘Custom Query’. There are four boxes on the new screen: Commodities, Attributes, Countries, Market Years. Click on the commodity you want to see in the first box, that brings up the Attributes menu in the next box over. Click on ‘Imports’, for Country click on ‘Israel, then select the year you want. Click the green Run Query button on lower right of screen. When you want to search for other commodities, there is a red Back to Query button to click on the upper right screen.
02.12.2016 Will beef export volume increase in 2016? Beef Magazine, by Joe Schuele,(75,000 tonnes beef.)
The National Water Carrier (Ha’ Movil Ha’ Artsi) Shmeil Kantor Formern Chief Engineer and Head of Planning Dep. Mekorot Water Co.
Also see: Fanak water: Israel Dr. Clive Lipchin, Director of Transboundry Water Management, Arava Institute for Environmental studies, Israel.
The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Crops and Derived Crop Products. UNESCO-IHE, Institute of water education, Volume 1: Main Report. Value of Water Research Report Series No.
2017 Global Security Index: Measuring food security and the impact of resource risk The Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Dupont. Countries lower on the list than Israel, that supply food to Israel: Hungary-30, Brazil-38, Russia-41, Ukraine-63.
2017 Fixing Food: The Mediterranean Region The Economist/Intelligence Unit with Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition.
11.20.2014 Exporter Guide USDA Foreign Agricultural Service—GAIN Report. Prepared by Gilad Shachar, Approved by Orestes Vasquez, Sr. Agricultural Attaché’. damage to Israeli crops from Protective Edge.
2015 data from USDA Economic Research Service Agricultural Trade page
10.18.2012 Israel to label all egg imports Green Prophet: sustainable news from the Middle East Israel imports around 80 million eggs/year from Turkey.
12.24.2017 Israeli Agriculture Minister’s solution to drought: mass western wall prayers for rain. Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
01.21.2015 A raw deal: abuse of Thai workers in Israel’s agricultural sector. Human Rights Watch Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director Middle East and North Africa Division.
Israeli Casualties of War Wikipedia  is the source of 32 combat casualties.
11.22.2016 Israel’s farmers: an endangered species Globes: Israel’s Business Arena. by Yaron Solomon, Agricultural Union Settlement Department Director. Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel quote, “Israeli agriculture is among the most advanced in the world, and we are taking steps to leverage this, both economically and politically…”
08.12.2015 How Israel will save the world: (sic) an interview with Seth Siegel. Orthodox Union by OR staff. Hydro-diplomacy quote and assertions about drip irrigation.
01.19.2018 Dry, dry, again: After several wet years, big drought is back again in Israel Haaretz by Hagal Amit. This article has the Gioria Shacham quote about don’t grow new tomatoes.