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The Agricultural Technology Revolution and how Israel are uniquely positioned to lead it

Index

SECTION 1:  Summary

SECTION 2:  A definition of Ag-Tech

SECTION 3Global Issues

SECTION 4:  The Ag-Tech Revolution

SECTION 5:  Israel the ‘Start-up Nation’

SECTION 6:  Israel’s Ag-Tech landscape

SECTION 7:  Israel Ag-Tech and The Rest Of The World

SECTION 8:  Conclusion

 

SECTION 1:  Summary

person holding small globe

Problems the world faces

There are a number of key global issues that are likely to get increasingly worse before they get better. Issues such as food and water shortages, leading to poor nutrition and premature child mortality around the world. As well as hundreds of millions of hungry adults that have poor health and low life expediencies, as a result of overpopulation and climate change.

The role of Agriculture Technology

Innovation in the agricultural technology (Ag-Tech) industry can offer, in some cases, complete solutions to alleviate and begin to reverse these problems. Not to say that many other factors don’t play a key role, they do, but this post focuses only on Ag-Tech. It is not intended to be deterministic, but just to highlight one of the important components in the almost incomprehensible system that comprises the planet and its issues, and potential solutions.

Why Israel?

I have concluded, through researching this article, that Israel is the key country to lead an Ag-Tech revolution. Because of their history, identity, geographic positioning, political standing, access to capital, technical know-how, and world-class research, they are uniquely positioned to be the driving force behind Ag-Tech innovation and implementation. Providing they can continue on the right trajectory and are not hindered or ploughed off course because of political issues concerning deals and partnerships with the competing global superpowers of America and China. And, that they can continue to mature from their status as a start-up nation into a scale-up nation. All whilst being able to keep their citizens happy and are able to be more inclusive, so that it is not just a small minority elite working in their high-tech industries. Which is important in the pursuit to find talented engineers and entrepreneurs ripe for development. Lastly, it is imperative that they do not let conflicts with other countries impact, or even cease, their technological progress in agriculture if they really are to lead an Ag-Tech revolution.

The purpose of this case study

The main point of this post is to illustrate the importance of technological innovation in agriculture, and specifically the innovation and leadership required from the nation of Israel in that endeavour.

I will go into more detail on each aspect mentioned in the above paragraph, and outline why, I believe, the current state of these components and how they develop could determine how well we fare against the challenges humanity faces over the next 30 years. As the world population is projected, by that time, to reach 10 billion people, a figure that some scientists believe, with the current rate of progress, would be reaching the point of being unsustainable and eventually catastrophic.

 

 

SECTION 2:  A definition of Ag-Tech

Drone flying above crops

What is agriculture technology (Ag-Tech) anyway?

As the name suggests it is about the deployment of technological innovation and insights in the agricultural industry. It is an umbrella term that incorporates the developments sought by farmers aided by technology, backed by academic and commercial research, and fuelled by public and private investment. It refers to the specific devices, tools and software that are produced as well as the industry as a whole. Monsanto Australia technology boss James Nielsen says Ag-Tech is about:

“Smart farmers getting smarter using digital technology. “

Although using the latest equipment and machinery is nothing new to farmers, the new types of technology becoming available requires them to re-think ways agriculture has been traditionally done, and even learn new skills so they’re not left behind.

The technology

The range of technologies within Ag-Tech is vast. Covering areas such as biotech, machinery and robotics, irrigation and water management, smart farming, and crop protection, to name a few. Common solutions are such techniques such as precision agriculture and drip irrigation. Companies have also been re-purposing military drones, that have specialist sensor that can be used to survey farm land and gather valuable data to help improve efficiency, save on labour and production costs, and result in higher yield. There is also a continual increase in the use of drones to cater for plants on an individual level, with the use of machine learning algorithms.

Ofer Haviv, CEO of Evogene, quoted that systems now are:

 Capable of recognizing that a specific disease is developing, and will then spray pesticides in a specific spot, not over the entire field. We can see that in a certain area there’s a shortage of fertilizer and increase the amount.”

Combine harvester in crop field

This vehicle will soon be driving itself

All types of advanced tech will soon be cropping up

This is the tip of the iceberg for these types of technologies and there are many more applications on the horizon involving big data, AI, Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicles. Indeed, the Israeli start-up IVO, can transform tractors into an autonomous vehicle within the space of five minutes. So you can be sure that a driver-less combine harvester is coming soon to a field near you.

 

 

SECTION 3:  Global Issues

Melting glaciers and ice sheets

What are the issues we’re facing?

Humans are causing climate change

Climate change is happening, and it does happen naturally regardless of what we do. Earth’s climate does fluctuate and Ice Ages occur. However, there is strong evidence that the current trend of global warming is mostly caused by humans, because of all the dead dinosaurs we’ve been burning into the atmosphere. The evidence is compelling and abundant, as a UN body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said:

“Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.”

 

Industrial chimney pollution

Things are hotting up

In a nutshell, what’s happening is we’re trapping a lot of extra heat inside the atmosphere because of the increased amount of greenhouse gases being produced as a result of human activity. This is bad. It causes rises in global temperature, shrinking ice sheets, ocean acidification and sea-level increases, amongst other things, such as more severe weather conditions. Intense hurricanes that cause mass devastation, for one, will become more frequent over time.

 

 

Temperature’s rising

Earth’s average temperature has increased approximately 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, which is primarily attributed to emissions resulting from human exploits. Most of the warming has happened since the 1980s onward. The world is warming up, of that there is no doubt.

 

Water issues

Water droplets

Impacts of climate change on water

It is safe to say that there are many negative consequences of climate change. One of the main issues with climate change is that it has an impact on the water cycle. It changes rain patterns, causes floods, water shortages, as well as the ominous sounding ‘Megadroughts.’

The UN reports that by 2050, as much as 5 billion people could be struggling with water shortages. That means half of the planet’s population, at that point, will have difficulties with gaining access to fresh water.

A study led by NASA also points out that a lot of the world’s fresh water supplies are being used up at a faster pace then they are being replenished.

Impending water crises

Agriculture accounts for about 70% of freshwater use globally. You need water to farm. We’re running out of freshwater supplies. It’s pretty clear and obvious how much of a problem this is. It is one of the biggest reasons why Ag-Tech is going to be so crucial, so we can improve our ability to be more efficient with our resources and find new ways to recycle waste water.

Israel is no stranger to this issue, they always seem to be in the jaws of a severe water crisis. They have had to become experts in water management, including using sophisticated techniques like ‘desalination’, which is turning seawater into potable water, of which they happen to be one of the leading exponents. But Israel’s role in water-related issues will be discussed more farther down in the post.

 

Food issues

Fruit and vegetables

It all comes down to food

Connected to the above issues, the lowest common denominator, is that of food production. The agricultural industry gets dealt a harsh blow of adversity when climate change and water shortages occur. It turns out that floods and droughts are generally very bad for crops and livestock. Unless you can find a cow snorkel kit, that is.

A huge boost in food output required

It is estimated that food production will need to increase by 69% by the year 2050 in order to supply the expanding population with adequate sustenance.
We can’t make food if we don’t have water, and we’re going to need a lot more food.

It is clear to see all of these systems are linked and that changes and disruption in one causes dangerous and negative effects in the others. And there is something that underpins it all. Something that exacerbates these issues, and in some way could even be said to be the primary cause. I’m talking about overpopulation, and that’s what I’ll come onto next.

 

Overpopulation

Overpopulated train

10 billion people by 2050

At the time of writing the world’s population is approximately 7.6 billion, according to population.io. A UN report from 2017 estimates that by 2050 the population on our planet will be 9.8 billion. That’s more than 2 billion extra mouths to feed. And that by 2100 it will be 11.2 billion. Some scientists even claim that 10 billion is the upper threshold of what Earth could actually sustain, after that we are at a level where people get so hungry, we go full zombie apocalypse.

I know what date I’m going to die

I don’t think I’ll get to see the year 2100 anyway, with its futuristic flying cars and mutant designer babies that grow to be 10 feet tall and have Herculean physiques, and its zombie apocalypses, because according to population.io I only have just under 58 years left to live:

life expectancy diagram

My life expectancy according to population.io

 

For one thing, I’ll be wrapping myself in bubble wrap and hiding in a basement on the 19th October 2076, in a vain attempt to avoid some Final Destination type prophecy (gulp).

But I’m using this calculator to make a more serious point. That so many in the world don’t have anything close to a life expectancy of 86 years.
1 in 7 people in the world, already suffer from chronic undernourishment in the world, and 45% of deaths in children under five, 3.1 million, is the result of poor nutrition.
The likelihood is that this will only get worse, as population increase, without some significant improvements.

In this section the aim was just to highlight a number of issues, and set the scene of the challenges we’re facing, and will be facing in future. Ag-tech is obviously not a silver bullet to solve everything. But it can help deal with problems of climate change as well as food and water shortages, by being more efficient, producing more, and wasting less. This will be further addressed in the Ag-Tech section of this post.

 

 

SECTION 4:  The Ag-Tech Revolution

Vibrant crop landscape

The first Agricultural Revolution

As described by Yuval Noah Harari in his best-selling book, Sapiens, for much of human history, we have been nomadic hunter-gatherers. Using resources at one site and then moving to find fresh supply elsewhere. It was like this for about 2.5 million years. But then, about 10,000 years ago, we tore up the script and made some changes. Homo sapiens began to spend a considerable amount of their time (there was no Netflix) cultivating plants and animals. This was the beginning of the first Agricultural Revolution. 

Humans step it up

And by all accounts, it was a game-changer. The crazy thing is that even today:

“More than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and  3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, millet and barley.”

This new-found wealth, the surplus in food and the increased reliability of its production certainly led to population explosions, and it is debated as to whether it enabled more leisure time or just resulted in ‘pampered elites’. But it could be argued, from one standpoint, that the agricultural revolution is partly responsible for the current size of the population, and how quickly and expansively humans have grown.

Sapiens book by Yuval Noah Harari

Population explosion

As Harari states, one thing was certain:

“Farming enabled populations to increase so radically and rapidly that no complex agricultural society could ever again sustain itself if it returned to hunting and gathering.”

Most farmers lived in permanent settlements, and still do. This gave rise to civilisations that could live in one area, usually near a river, and make a lot of food to support bigger populations. This invariably gave rise to more people, working together, with more ideas, and ultimately meant that technology could be invented and improved at a faster pace.

 

The birth of civilisation

As Peter Frankopan states in his book The Silk Roads:

“The alluvial lowlands of Mesopotamia, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates, provided the basis for civilization itself – for it was in this region that the first towns and cities took shape. Systematised agriculture developed in Mesopotamia and across the whole of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, a band of highly productive land with access to plentiful water, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean coast.”

 

The Silk Roads book by Peter Frankopan

 

A brave new farming world

Farmers were forced to use their imagination and ingenuity because rather than thinking in mere hours and days, like hunter-gatherers, they now had to start thinking and preparing in months and years.

Brushing over a few major empires this all eventually segued into the Industrial Revolution a few thousand years later, which paved the way for the digital revolution, and the hi-tech environment we find ourselves in today. It is this new highly digital, connected, data-driven world that will provide the ingredients for the Ag-Tech revolution.

Ag-Tech revolution clarification

So it looks as though it’s going to take a new revolution in agriculture, an ag-tech revolution, to combat the issues caused by, at least to some extent, the very first one (there have been other agricultural revolutions.)

Whether it is or is not a dictionary definition of revolution is not relevant here. I’m using the phrase ‘Ag-Tech revolution’ as a shorthand for the global effort and innovation that will be required to advance the agricultural industry, through new technology, to help offset some of the issues outlined earlier. The semantics of this phrase is not the linchpin of this argument.

Israel, it seems, is already spearheading this revolution, as you’ll find out in the following section.

 

 

SECTION 5:  Israel the Start-up Nation

Tel Aviv at night

Tel Aviv at night

A Start-up Nation primer

In this section I’ll be explaining in more detail why Israel is uniquely positioned to lead the ‘Ag-Tech revolution’, and will be going into the reasons why this state has a desirable set-up due to its history of technology and innovation.

It is important to paint the picture of Israel as a start-up nation, and its global status in the realm of technology, in order to show why it’s equipped to be a leader in the Ag-Tech industry far into the future.

 

How Israel became a startup nation

For a brief moment, let’s go back in time to the mid 1980s. Perms and shoulder pads are all the rage, Madonna is topping the charts, Sylvester Stallone is exploding onto cinemas screens as John Rambo, and a few people are starting to catch onto this little thing called the Internet. I wasn’t there, but it sounds like it was kind of fun.

 

Vintage cassette tape

This was what Spotify looked like in the 80s

Israel laid a foundation

Something less well-known about that decade, however, is that the Israeli government was laying foundations for their country to become a technological powerhouse. In the mid 1980s Shimon Peres (President at the time) readjusted Israel’s trajectory and set them on a path to their current innovative and technological landscape they have today. On the back of Israel having 400% inflation per year, and being in an economic crisis, President Peres understood that technology was one industry that could lead to rapid and significant growth.

Israel’s ecosystem

Yonatan Adiri, former CTO to President Peres explains that:

‘It’s not that Israel is the best in the world at universities, it’s not that it has the best IP law, or the best access to capital, it crosses the critical mass on all of those dimensions of the ecosystem and their aren’t many ecosystems like that. In terms of culture, in terms of willingness to fail, in terms of access to capital, a lot of those were born in 1985, when again he paid political capital, to put in place very innovative public policy initiatives like backing VC losses, to attract venture capital in the late 80s.’

 

Shimon Peres - former President of Israel

Shimon Peres – former President of Israel

Forward thinking

It was pretty smart what they did, Yozma, a government initiative, effectively created Israel’s venture-capital sector through a scheme that offered tax incentives to investors and entrepreneurs.

It is an amazing story of rapid progression. As Adiri also points out:

‘A country, which is 70 years old, with eight million people, which 70 years ago had barely a university here, has three of it’s six, which are publicly funded, three of the Israeli universities are in the top hundred most innovative universities in the world.’

Israeli identity

This, I think, says something about the identity of the Israeli people. It highlights that throughout their relatively short history as a country they have, from the start, had an entrepreneurial disposition rooted in research and backed by strategic, long-term visions for improvement.

 

Technological Cluster: The Start-up Nation in more detail

Electrical connections

A detailed study of Israel’s tech background

In this part I will elaborate on how Israel has become a technologically advanced country. I will summarise the salient points that Catherine de Fontenay and Erran Carmel elucidate in their study ‘Israel’s Silicon Wadi: The Forces behind cluster formation.

Something to bear in mind

This report is of more historical importance and offers explanations on why Israel became a technology cluster in the later stages of the 20th century. The study was published in 2002, and generally provides information of events and statistics from the 1960s – 2001. Therefore should be viewed primarily as historical background setting the scene, rather than direct explanations of anything that has happened post-publication.  

The study gives further objective detail and depth about the factors that built up Israel’s technological cluster, and gave rise to their commonly stated moniker ‘Start-up nation’, which refers to the high amount of companies that are founded there. Israel, in fact, frequently holds the status of the country with the most amount of start-ups per capita.

Silicon Wadi

Israel is affectionally known as ‘Silicon Wadi’. A nickname inspired by the Americans’ own Silicon Valley, so called because of the pervasiveness of computing start-ups and companies in that area of California, with silicon being one of the main constituents of microchips, a core component inside computers. ‘Wadi’ is used in Hebrew and Arabic to mean ‘Valley’.

Microchips

What is a cluster?

Firstly, we can think of the process and result of Israel becoming a ‘start-up nation’ using a more technical term: ‘cluster’.

“Industry clusters consist of agglomerations of competing and collaborating industries in a region networking into horizontal and vertical relationships, involving strong common buyer-supplier linkages, and relying on a shared foundation of specialized economic institutions.” (“Cluster Based Economic Development: A Key to Regional Competitiveness,” Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, October 1997)

Israel’s tech boom

“In 2000, near the peak of the high-tech boom, Israel had more than 2000 high-tech firms and new ones were forming at the rate of about 500 start-ups per year.”

History leading to take-off

The roots of Israel’s technology cluster stem back to the 1960s, when a few big companies, particularly one called Elron Electronics, began to spawn and drive innovation and the technology industry forward. Toward the end of the 60s and into the 70s there was a military push for advanced tech, borne out of wanting an advantage over surrounding countries, amongst other reasons. Israel turned out to be rather successful in this domain, and eventually the inventions and breakthroughs started to feed into the commercial sector. Computing was a strong focus for the military and they established a centralised computer centre that housed a Philco Transac 2000 mainframe, ‘one of the earliest transistor-based computers available outside the defense establishments in the USA, USSR and UK.’ This worked out extremely well for Israel because, over time, hardware started to become a lot cheaper and the most valuable asset became software, an area which the resource-restricted Israel could excel. This was because software was dependent on people over machines, hard work and pioneering technical expertise over how much money you had for equipment. Throughout the 1980s Israeli software companies started to find their feet and get some traction on the global scene. Incredibly, in just seven years, from 1984 -1991, software exports jumped from a modest $5 million to a staggering $110 million. A drop in the ocean in relation to the wider market, but a healthy boost for Israel.

The military influence

The military was, and still is, a key organisation for developing scientific and engineering talent, with technical programs in science and engineering formulated for the cream of the crop talent to be nurtured. Historically the military has been the most prominent originator of ICT insights, playing a leading role in certain areas of research such as cryptography. There is no doubt that conflicts Israel has been embroiled in has been a significant driver of the innovation achieved by the military.

The Israeli military is different to many other countries with regards to hierarchy, having a relatively flat leadership culture. This encourages lower-ranked personnel to step forward and take leadership roles on projects. Even at a young age they are expected to take on serious responsibilities, with an emphasis placed on working hard and going to great lengths to complete tasks quickly. It is an environment that is extremely challenging but relatively informal. Recruits have to adapt quickly whilst being encouraged to foster and implement ideas as part of dynamic teams. These conditions have been said to be similar to how employees and entrepreneurs operate in a startup company. The emphasis is always on getting a working solution rather than a perfectly finished product, and in these ways, and many others, Israeli’s are given an entrepreneurial type experience as part of a large organisation from a young age.

 

Satellite dish

R&D in military is directly beneficial to the commercial market

Another way Israel’s technology industry has benefited from the way its military operates is that it is not strict with intellectual property, and allows former personnel to work on things closely associated to their military projects. This means products and services can enter the commercial market based on military R&D, which in most cases the military wouldn’t have been well positioned to release. This is an incentive for the teams that work on such endeavours, as it’s easier to extend something they’re already familiar with, something they know already works.

Influx of smart immigrants

Since its inception, waves of immigrants have entered the country, hugely benefiting Israel’s technology industry with their contributions. In particular, a large number of ex-Soviets arrived in the country at the end of the 1980s, many of whom were engineers and scientist and brought with them a wealth of knowledge and experience in subjects such as mathematics. The USSR being well-known for its prowess in such disciplines. Indeed, ‘ they helped fuel the technology boom of the late 1990s, as their innovations and technical skills assisted both startups and established firms (Kaplan, 1998).’ This contributed to Israel having a large amount of scientists and engineers per capita, as well as having a wealth of human capital at their disposal that could aid in engineering development and activities.

Mathematics on chalkboard

Emergence of a venture capital infrastructure

In the mid 1980s venture capital firms began to emerge in Israel. The first one, Athena, started with just $29 million. With some hefty incentives from the government, in an attempt to encourage more investment, the amount of funds grew to 35 by 1996, with approximately half a billion dollars in investments they were involved in. This sharply increased again, and by the year 2000 there was over 100 funds and the portfolios added up to a grand total of $7.3 billion. Not too shabby.

The government also had a number of other programmes that helped Israel’s technology industry and economy swell. Offering incentives to multinationals, reductions in corporate tax, and the establishment of ‘incubators’ to assist entrepreneurs, particularly those that had hailed from the Soviet Union.

 

Business District - Tel Aviv

Business District – Tel Aviv

 

The 1990s: the transition to a cluster

It was in the 1990s when Israel really began to rise to prominence and garner attention and recognition as a developing industrial cluster within the sphere of technology. The rest of the world and its media (such as Forbes) began to take note and publish articles about the “Start-up Nation” the “High-Tech Miracle In The Desert”. This recognition along with some company success stories led to what is known as the reputation effect, one of the attributes that signifies a cluster. What followed was a period of significant growth. And towards the end of the 90s successful ICT firms were being churned out at a frequency of about 10-20 per year, compared to just one-two at the start of the decade.

The nature of Israeli entrepreneurship

Amongst the accelerated growth, the government incentives, and military ignited innovation, there was a certain attitude that was cultivated in the fabric of Israeli entrepreneurship that is still prevalent in more recent times. As captured in this quote by the Israeli entrepreneur Eynat Guez:

The Israeli emphasis is on ideas, speed and rollout. If that means the innovations are slightly unformed, so be it. If that means some entrepreneurs crash and burn, no problem.”

This again reinforces the idea that there is a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, in the present day, that reinforces the idea of action, of getting things done, of experimenting and not fearing failure.

Multinationals

As briefly mentioned above Israel have put in place programmes and incentives to attract multinationals. Huge companies have operations in Israel including, but not limited to, R&D centres. We’re talking about the likes of Google, Facebook and IBM. It is not a fad, either. It is something that is expanding and growing.

There are hundreds of centres already functioning in Israel and around 20 extra are opening up annually. This is a dynamic that is mutually beneficial, and a trend that looks sets to continue, something which will greatly improve and sustain Israel’s technological advancements.

Computer hardware data-centre

Israel continues to expand

Israel did not go stagnant after the major surge that occurred throughout the 1990s. Below are some statistics highlighting how Israel’s tech industry is performing in more recent times and how it is still looking good for the future.

Strong growth

In 2018 Israel broke a 6 year record for the amount of capital raised by tech companies in a year. 623 deals generated $6.47 billion compared to the $5.53 billion raised in 2017.

As well as reaching highs from an investment standpoint, Israel also ranked highly on Bloomberg’s Most innovative Nation Index, placing 5th, higher than America. 

 

 

SECTION 6:  Israel’s Ag-Tech landscape

 

In this part of the post I’ll be surveying the Ag-Tech world of Israel, giving a brief history of agriculture in the country and how it has always been a hotbed for innovation. Then onto the strength of Ag-Tech research in Israel and finish up by outlining some issues that could hinder Israel’s progress as a leader of Ag-Tech.

 

A brief history of agriculture in Israel

Israel, since it was established in 1948, has always been agriculturally innovative. It has had to be. “Necessity is the mother of invention”, as the phrase goes. Israel’s land, at that time, was mostly arable and with scarce water. Since then, the country has managed to vastly increase the amount of land that can be used for crops. This was all connected to the Kibbutz, which was a communal settlement based around agriculture. It gave Israeli’s the opportunity to own land and become farmers in a protected environment.

 

Citrus packing in Hadera

Citrus packing in Hadera before the establishment of the state.

 

People who know to make hay while the sun shines

Around the time the country was founded more than a third of Jewish resident in Palestine had Malaria. They changed the flow of water to interrupt the mosquitos’ breeding and reduce their numbers. Less than 20 years after Israel was formed it was officially declared malaria free, as a result of their efforts. This is just one example of the Israeli’s ingenuity and determination in unfavourable conditions.

Faced with such poor land for farming they set about work, coming up with ingenious ways to make it fertile, draining the swamps, creating irrigation systems and managing to transform desert land into fields of crops. They managed to boost Israel’s cultivated land area by a factor of 2.6.

Since the beginning then, agriculture was a big part of Israeli identity, purchasing and developing land that was for the most part deemed to be ‘unusable’.

 

Aquaculture in Kibbutz in the Negev Desert

Aquaculture in Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev Desert

 

Agricultural research in Israel

The Israel agricultural research scene is well-established and sophisticated, comprising of academic institutions, industry consultants and farmers. The country is a leader in agricultural technology research both commercially and academically, including world-class institutions like the Agricultural Research Organicaion (ARO), otherwise known as Volcani Centre.

 

The main roles of the ARO are:

  • Assisting Israel’s farmers to solve various problems.
  • Planning and executing research and development on new and strategic agriculture and food science subjects.
  • Organizing and implementing agricultural research in Israel.

 

There are also prominent universities such as The Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv University, that participate in agricultural research. And this ecosystem of research centres, academic institutions and commercial R&D initiatives mean that Israel can continue to be a leader in world-class Ag-Tech research.

 

The Ag-Tech boom in israel

The Ag-Tech landscape in Israel has been developing strongly and at a rapid pace. It is an area in which Israel can excel and it is something that politicians can use as a driving force for economic growth and national pride, as seen in this impassioned presentation at the Aipac Policy Conference by Benjamin Netanyahu:

 

 

This sort of enthusiasm coming from notable public figures can only encourage and inspire more innovation in this industry.

 

Israel’s Ag-Tech UN mission – 2015

Israel is at he forefront of Ag-Tech, and is asserting leadership in many aspects, not only with its technology, but politically also. In 2017 the Israel news site nocamels reported that:

An Israeli resolution focused on using agriculture technology for sustainable development was approved this week at United Nations Second Committee, also known as the Economic and Financial Committee, by 141 countries and co-sponsored by 117 of them. It was the highest number of co-sponsors to date for any Israeli resolution, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said “Israel is proud to work with our friends around the world in promoting cutting-edge solutions to some of the world’s oldest agricultural challenges. This is an issue that should bring all of us together.”

UN Flag

UN Flag

 

Danon has also been quoted as saying, at another conference in 2015:

“Today’s resolution is not only about agricultural technology. It is about improving the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the developing world.” 

 

Israel a world-leader in Ag-Tech

Israel is a terrible place for farming, at least it should be considering the conditions. In general there is a lack of a key resource, water. Crops really like water, and they need a lot of it. One thing crops don’t like is the dry and not very fertile land of deserts, and Israel has a lot of it, more than half of the land is desert, in fact. It is estimated that only 20% of Israel’s land is naturally arable, meaning, land that is suitable for farming.

These factors make it even more astonishing that Israel is a world-leader in Ag-Tech.

It’s so successful in agriculture that Israel can produce “95% of its own food requirements, supplementing this with imports of grain, oilseeds, meat, coffee, cocoa and sugar.”

Date harvest in Israel

Date harvest in Israel

 

Israel home to many Ag-Tech startups

In 2018 Israel was home to around 530 Ag-Tech companies. 58% of these companies were founded at least a decade earlier. As of 2018 then, the Ag-Tech ecosystem in Israel was still in its infancy. But these Israeli companies are prominent on the world stage. In 2017 Israeli Ag-Tech startups accounted for 7% of all transactions in partnership deals.

This trend looks set to continue as Israel is was ranked #2 by the Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, and is consistently ranked among the top two or three most important startup ecosystems in the world.

 

Most important Ag-Tech industry outside US

As with most industries, America is the global leader in Ag-Tech, but it has been noted that Israel’s is the most important industry outside of the US.

It is certainly true from an economic standpoint that America is the most important geography for Ag-Tech, with Israel accounting for 2% of funding for Ag-Tech startups in 2016, whereas America accounted for 58% of funding dollars. But considering the huge difference in population size, Israel is punching well above its weight.

But in the next section, when we consider Israel in relation to the rest of the world in Ag-Tech, it could be the case that Israel is actually the most important centre for Ag-Tech, at least for the well-being as the planet as a whole.

 

Internal issues for Israel’s tech scene to contend with

In this part I highlight issues that could impact Israel’s Ag-tech progression internally. There are, of course, myriad issues that can slow-down and damage innovation efforts, but I have picked some examples to outline the kinds of issues that could hamper Israel’s development.

 

Disconnect between hi-tech and most Israeli people

Row of people

Elitism bad for business

One of the issues in Israel (it has been argued) is that the benefits of their technological enterprise don’t trickle down very far, and has little to no impact on the lives of most Israeli citizens. Israel is still a long way behind a lot of the western countries it is compared against in key public services and economic development. Many indexes and statistical reports indicate that there is a huge skill gap between the elite minority that work in high-tech, about 8% of the population (mostly men), and the rest of society.

Limited talent pool

Israel has a relatively small pool of people to begin with, the population being approximately 8.5 million, without all the barriers to entry that exist. This elitism creates a very real problem for Israel’s tech industry. 

This is bad because it cuts down on grass roots development, which is highlighted in a report released by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies shows that many Israelis don’t have the skills required to work in the tech industry. More needs to be done to encourage people that may have an interest in engineering and technology to pursue these paths. Also, there needs to be more infrastructure to train people that may have some talent in these areas but have not been recognised or have chosen other paths and would like to re-train. There is also the problem that most of the county’s startups, 77%, are based in the greater Tel Aviv area. So rather than it being a nation of innovation, it is one specific region where all the resources, capital and brains are centralised.

Zooming out

From a wider perspective, it could cause disruptions and unrest in the country if the people of Israel feel they are not getting enough support and access to learning, facilities and public amenities. According to government reports, It leads to a feeling among a lot of ‘ordinary’ Israelis, that they are not part of a technologically advanced society at all.

 

Israel as a Scale-up Nation

People holding puzzles pieces

Scale-up Nation what now?

“Scale-Up Nation is focused on building large, successful multinational companies that are headquartered in Israel and operate on a truly global scale, with thousands of employees and significant revenues.”

 

One of the issues surrounding Israel’s startup scene is that most often the businesses are acquired by bigger companies outside of the country, and so whatever innovation, product or service was being produced is removed. In this way most of Israeli startups become fixated on ‘the exit’, on the buyout in which the founders and investors make a return. So the question has been asked whether Israel can be come a scale-up nation? That is to say that they can start and grow a company in a sustainable manner, and keep it inside Israel’s borders.

Progression chart

Is it going to fail before it even really begins?

Some analyst are concerned that the startup nation is already declining, and so the Scale-Up Nation has no chance of success:

“The Startup Nation has seen a dwindling number of startups founded over the past few years, from over 1,000 in 2014 to 700 in 2017, according to a new report on the Israeli tech ecosystem released this month by Start-Up Nation Central (SNC).”

“Of the almost 100 Israeli companies publicly traded on Nasdaq (the majority of which are technology firms), only a handful have successfully grown valuation year over year, allowing them to deliver significant return on investment for their investors. One reason for this, I believe, is that the company does not possess the vision to set forth a clear mission as well as the know-how to execute that vision.”

Matthew Krieger, for the Jerusalem Post.

If Israel can not start to create a more sustainable model, in which companies scale, and remain in Israel, there is a real risk that things could begin to unweave, and investments, and top talent that it attracts, would begin to dwindle. But Israel do have maturing companies that don’t fit into the shape of the ‘startup nation’. It seems then the best way for Israel to continue is to be a hybrid model in which it maintains its startup environment and ethos, but blends it with the ability to scale those companies inside Israel. Initiatives are already underway to support this vision.

 

Israel-Palestine conflict

It almost goes without saying that the on-going issues and conflicts with Palestine are more than enough to derail Israel’s progress in various ways. The complexity of that situation is too vast to discuss in any detail as it would be beyond the scope of this post. It is safe to say however, this could be one of the biggest threats to progress and sustainable innovation in not just Ag-Tech, but the technology industry as a whole. Here’s a crash course video on the conflict if you’re interested to know more:

 

 

 

SECTION 7:  Israel Ag-Tech and The Rest Of The World

 

Connected world using tacs

Israel in relation to the global scene

This is where things get interesting. Here I look the ways in which Israel’s Ag-Tech industry interfaces with other countries around the world. This is key for two main reasons in relation to the present analysis. Firstly it is important because in a symbiotic way it exchanges innovation and development. It passes on innovation and learns from innovation, and in this way is involved in the progression of the industry as a whole in a global sense. The second reason is that the relations it has with other countries and its geographic location is significant as it becomes a political and economical bridge, in particular between the East and the West. Something that is crucial for the future of Ag-Tech.

 

China

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai

 

Trend of increasing ties between China and Israel

In the decade preceding 2018 there was a steady increase in cooperation between Israel and China with regards to technology. It is something that both countries want to continue to strengthen.

As of 2014 China and Israel have been partnered in an intergovernmental committee. The aim of this collaboration is to enhance technological development for both parties. So there has been a serious commitment to establish stronger ties with each other and encourage innovation through an official partnership.

Avi Luvton, director of Asia Pacific Operations at the Israeli Innovation Authority has been quoted saying that China is powerful with regards to its population size and technology, and that:

“China is one of the most important and strategic countries that we would like to cooperate with,”

 

Boost in Chinese investment in Israel

All of this is being translated into action, as in 2016 the amount transacted between the two countries was in excess of $11 billion, this put China in third spot on Israel’s list of biggest trading partners.

This is off the back of two previous years of increased Chinese investment in Israel tech startups. And, also in 2018, China Minsheng Financial ploughed $100 into an Israeli trading company, eToro, which infuses a large social aspect into its platform, enabling traders to follow each other and replicate trades. These are all signs of what has been happening and what is to come.  

 

The Israel innovation summit

The Innovation Summit held in Israel in October 2018 was a very important event for a number of reasons, but one being that it was the first time in a decade a senior Chinese government official had made an official visit to Israel.

Omer Dostri, an expert on Israeli foreign policy said this:

“During Netanyahu’s 2017 visit to China, 25 cooperation agreements were signed in various fields, which the Chinese estimate to be worth about $2 billion. In addition, during the visit both sides agreed to expedite the establishment of a free-trade zone between the countries. As part of that visit, China launched a direct airline between Shanghai and Tel Aviv.”

 

Jack Ma, chairman and founder of the huge Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, was also in attendance at the Innovation Summit. He went on record to say:

“In Israel, innovation is everywhere, like water and food, it’s so natural.”

Reading into the subtext, it is evident that Chinese investors and CEOs see great potential in Israel and understand the country is, and will be, a big part of China’s growth strategy.

Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba

 

Examples of projects

Joint Ag-Tech Incubator

In 2014 Israel and China joined together to create an Ag-Tech incubator in Anhui Province, China. One of the key purposes of the incubator was to ‘expand applications of Israel’s advanced technologies in China’. 

Israel and China Strike $300m Deal to Bring Agtech East

A huge boost to Israel-China relations occured in 2017. The two countries penned a $300 trade agreement. The aim was to increase environmentally-friendliness and agricultural exports from Israel to China. It was a way China could tap into the insights and expertise that Israel had learnt in these fields.  

 

The US

US and Israel flags

US and Israel flags

US-Israel relations

For some time Israel have had strong and important relations with America. It is no secret America is a technological powerhouse, and Ag-Tech is no exception. Israel invested more than $150 billion over a five year period between 2010 – 2015 in American companies. And, many important agreements and deals have been struck between the two nations to aid mutual development in areas such as technology, enterprise and security. So, without any doubt Israel-US relations are of vital importance to both countries. But, in light of recent developments with China, these relations could be in some jeopardy, or at the least, could come under some pressure and cause political tension. The financial might and technical prowess of the US is something that makes the strategic partnership essential for the progression of Israel’s Ag-Tech sector and technology industry as a whole.

Trump pressure

Donald Trump has been exerting pressure on Israel over its relations with China, with the background being that America and China have been embroiled in a trade war. Historically Israel’s tech industry has been heavily reliant on American investors, but this could be put on ice with the US president’s battles with China.

“Israel is just one of many moves the U.S. government is taking to pressure its allies not to use China’s technology over concerns for national security,” said Wang Dong, an international relations professor at Peking University and secretary general of the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing-based research group. “China and Israel have very good bilateral relations and I don’t think that should be politicized.

Political games?

It is difficult to know the extent to which these are just political games, designed to scare Israel into slowing or ceasing partnerships with China, not wanting their own power and influenced to be diminished or reduced at the expense of China’s increasing.

Chess pieces

Israel Will Have to Choose Between America and China

There has been pressure from the US with regards to Israel’s growing relationship with China. Some commentators have began to declare that ultimately Israel, at some point, will have to pick one way or the other. To clearly show where its loyalties lie and which super power, America or China, it will want the strongest partnership with.

Israel could benefit from the US-China beef

It has also been noted though, that these murmurs may be getting blown out of proportion, and that actually Israel could benefit from the tensions between the US and China, in some scenarios. Shmulik Zysman, managing partner at Zysman, Aharoni, Gayer & Company, which co-sponsored the fundraising survey with IVC, said he believed that the trade war would benefits Israel’s technology sector.

“When [the United States and China] are quarrelling, Israeli companies are the ones that profit. Israeli high-tech companies have become the indirect route of Americans to China, and of the Chinese to the United States,” he said.

 

And, ironically, it could end up having a wider advantages for the planet in general as Israel becomes an interface between the US and China.

 

Israel and developing Ag-Tech industries

Hand holding plant

Israel is already helping the world through Ag-Tech

Israel has become and important benefactor for other countries who have farming difficulties due to droughts, arid conditions or other climate-based factors. It offers important insights and technology, setting up partnerships and schemes to improve agriculture industries around the world. Although there are many, such as countries in Latin America, I will use Africa and India for purpose of illustration.

 

Africa

Camp Kipwe, Namibia, Africa

Camp Kipwe, Namibia, Africa

Israel can have great impact on Africa

It is important to note that Africa suffers some of the worst effects in the world of the issues discussed in this post.  Just as a single example:

Africa has the second largest number of undernourished, after Asia who has 512 million people facing hunger. This is largely due to the vast population size of Asia: 4.4 billion versus 1.2 billion in Africa.”

Action Against Hunger

Projects in which agriculture technology is exported to Africa, and ones involving farming improvements learned in Israel are especially poignant, as often, on a lot of metrics Africa are at a disadvantage. In this part I will detail some of the ways in which this relationship is forming.

 

Agricultural conference held in Israel

2016 saw the inaugural Israeli-African summit for agriculture. The conference was titled “Enhancing Sustainable Agricultural Productivity in Arid and Semi-Arid Regions’. Quite a mouthful. As the wording suggests the conference was based around Israel teaching the African officials, of which 13 attended, about technology produced in Israel to deal with certain unfavourable, climatic farming conditions. It also served a higher purpose of forging political and economic ties between Africa and Israel.

 

New fund utilises Israeli tech to help small farmers in Africa

Ethiopia depends heavily on agriculture, with a few high proportion of its population, 70%, involved in the industry. The country is still overwhelmingly poor however, with estimates purporting the figure to be 30% of the population are classified as in poverty.

To help with this situation Israel has injected significant funds into projects that directly help Ethiopia as well as other parts of Africa. One such project was in the region of $200 million, with most of the work being the responsibility of the Israeli company Netafim. The project was for an irrigation system for the Ethiopian government’s sugar company.

Irrigation hugely improves production for Ethiopian farmers. Land with an irrigation system can be harvested twice a year rather than once. Without irrigation the problem is that farmers only get a single rainy season in the summer months, which has been increasingly impacted by irregular rain patterns due to climate change.

 

Drip irrigation example

Drip irrigation example

Israel Ag-Tech exported to Africa

In some cases African countries have a reliable water supply, but what they lack are the means to get it where it is required. And so it becomes a water management problem, as opposed to one of scarcity. Israel, being based on a lot of desert land, has faced and solved similar issues. And so in 2015 African farmers and residents went to Tel Aviv to be educated in water management concepts and practises. One of the things the Israeli farmers taught was a technique called drip irrigation. Ovadia Keidar explained the process as such:

“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.”

One of the African farmers, Sylvanus Malungo was commented as saying the insights he had gained in Israel would enable him to increase food production in his home country of Angola.

 

India

Kolkata, India

Kolkata, India

Agriculture is kind of a huge deal in India

India is another geography that Israel have been extending a helping hand from Israel. It is a country that could certainly benefit from extra innovation considering how large the industry is there, nearly 58% of the population have agriculture as their main employment source. The reason India is forming connections with Israel is because the government is focusing a large amount of capital on projects to expand the industry and ultimately boost exports. Israel’s role is to help with the implementation of technology in their efforts, something they are vastly more experienced at, with literally hundreds of startups ready to be involved in such programs both nationally and internationally. Finding ways to combat and offset the negative effects of unpredictable and adverse weather that impacts production, is just one of the areas Israeli companies can bring value.

 

Israel PM establishing new partnership with India

In July 2017 the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, visited Israel on the grounds of increasing cooperation between Israel and India primarily in the areas of agriculture and water management. Then in 2018 Benjamin Netanyahu made a return visit to India to carry on with the discussion about agriculture. During this particular visit they released a joint statement:

 

“Both sides are working together on a Five Year Joint Work Plan for strategic cooperation in agriculture and water”

 

Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister - June 201

Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister – June 2017

Israel-India Action Plan

These visits were linked with an India-Israel Action plan (2015 – 2018)  that was being executed in which, upon completion, would see 26 agricultural centres of excellence established. Workshops and seminars are conducted at these centres for Indian farmers to improve their businesses. Huge boosts in production have been achieved as a result of these workshops, with farmers declaring that they have reduced water consumption by 65%, cut down on chemical fertilisers, and actually seen a 10-fold increase in crop yields.

 

Farmers - Munnar, India

Farmers – Munnar, India

 

Israel can help with water issues in India

Israel have also helped many cities in India with water management issues, as they frequently face problems around clean, fresh water for drinking as well as water for irrigation. Techniques brought in by Israel helped Indian farmers adopt the latest innovations at affordable prices. Being a world leader in water management Israel were able to show farmers how to recycle wastewater for use in agriculture, and introduced drip irrigation which helps farmers in developing countries to decrease water wastage.

 

 

SECTION 8:  Conclusion

 

So then, it seems that Israel has a mission, a responsibility, not just to use technology to improve agriculture for its own population, but to lead the way and be a global innovator and pioneer, to help the world with the potential impending overcrowding crisis.

Zooming out a little from Ag-Tech, the wider issue is that of Israel having to mature in to a ‘scale-up’ nation. In this way it will benefit its local citizens more than it may have done in some ways previously. This maturation will help its cause in continuing to be an attractive nation to invest in.

What I really mean, then,  when I saw we need an ‘Ag-Tech revolution’, is not that we need one over-arching revolution, one silver bullet that will solve everything. But, instead, we require a series of revolutions, particularly in countries most in need of Ag-Tech innovation. A series of revolutions, in which the solutions and technology required to achieve them are tailored specifically to their a unique set of local needs and challenges. Because the advancement required is far greater from what current projections say the world is capable of in the next 5-10 years. I think Israel will be, should be, at the forefront, providing valuable, hard-won, technical expertise and knowledge to help in adverse conditions against some of the biggest issues we’ll all be facing. They will of course need the cooperation and support of bigger nations, and to balance their own internal issues in order to have a steady platform from which to launch the Ag-Tech revolution.

 

 

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