"Agriculture forms the Basis of India-Israel Relationship"

Dan Alluf is Counsellor - Science & Agriculture at MASHAV (Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation. A Master in Business Administration from the Technion Institute of Technology, Israel, he has over 10 years' of experience in drip irrigation solutions, managing projects worldwide and specialising in horticulture and orchards. In a conversation with Aamir H Kaki, Desk Editor, Business of Agriculture, he speaks on Israel-India agricultural cooperation, Israel's technological expertise in agriculture, drip irrigation, protective cultivation and how Israel can help India in sustainable agriculture and more. Excerpts from the conversation:

Agriculture provides the foundation of the relationship between Israel and India. Do you agree?

Israel is a young country established in 1948, a year after India’s Independence. As a young nation, we faced many challenges in the form of immigration and refugees, infrastructure development, difficult climatic conditions, etc. To overcome these, we had no choice but to start innovation in every field. Since then and till today, innovation is the engine that is leading us not only in agriculture but also in many other fields.

India is a very vast and diverse country as compared to Israel and agriculture forms the basis of everything here. Farmers in India really live on agriculture as compared to any other place in the world. As India and Israel are working together on various fronts, agriculture forms the basis of their relationship.

Apart from agriculture, the two countries are working on trade, defence, culture and many other issues. But agriculture really connects us with India not just to government level or with decision makers but to the people on the ground. For agriculture, we are not just limited to working in New Delhi but all over India, be it the villages of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Punjab, Karnataka or any other state. As experts from Israel really understand agriculture, they bring solutions based on Indian requirements from Israel and then work with their Indian counterparts. Therefore, I can say, agriculture is the basic root in which Israel and India are working together.

Food security is a major challenge for India. How can Israel help India?

We're working together on Indo-Israel Agriculture Project (IIAP) as a team with our Indian partners from MIDH, Ministry of Agriculture, India, Indian states - which are part of this project, and MASHAV is leading from Israeli side, and the Embassy of Israel in India.

The project has three objectives:

1. To increase the diversity of the farmers, so that they can get a bigger return on investment from their land;

2. Increasing the yield of produce, both in quality and quantity, along the value chain from excellent seedling, cultivation methods, irrigation, fertigation and so on;

3. To increase the efficiency of the resources, i.e., using water resources efficiently, better yield with less irrigation, improving efficiency of energy as well as land.

So all these pillars can benefit Indian farmers to a great extent and also helps to address the food security challenge.

On the other hand, it is important to align agriculture and all the process in order to achieve a solution. It is a challenge to achieve excellent yield every year because agriculture is exposed to climate changes and events such as hail, unseasonal rain, etc. The only thing we can do is to give support to farmers in the form of tool box, best seeds, best irrigation systems, post harvest facilities and train them how to use these efficiently. But at the end of the day, it is to be remembered that agriculture is a risky business, everywhere in the world.

We understand the challenges and requirements from Indian side and try to address these challenges. However, it is important to see that the solutions are implemented in best possible way. If a farmer knows how to irrigate, it gives him the best quality of produce. And if no unusual climate event occurs, it gives him the assurance to have uniformity of produce year-after-year.

Israel is a world-leader in agricultural technologies. How technological expertise from Israel could help in sustainable agriculture in India?

As part of our project model, Israeli experts are guiding Indian teams across eight states in India on how to establish 28 Centers of Excellence (COE’s). Within this, we implement the technologies that are tailored according to the requirements of Indian farmers. This way, we demonstrate the technology to the farmers and train them both at the Center of Excellence and go out to them in field by extension. Therefore, I can say, it is not only technology but sustainable value.

To have a deep down approach, we insist that the leading team at the Center should be a local team using the principal of “Train the Trainers”. This local team is trained both in India and Israel, on technology and know-how of cultivation methods. To make it an ongoing process, we discuss and work at the clusters and as a team understands and defines what would be the next step and what are we going to demonstrate, and how this demonstration is going to benefit the farmers. We also ask for feedback from farmers to know what exactly they are receiving and if they want any change. This is the way we want to continue. This is a part of sustainability process and we are here to stay and work as a team. To take our partnership forward, we have recently signed a joint declaration to extend the project to three more years from 2015-18.

India-Israel moved to third stage of agricultural cooperation since 2008. Take us through the achievements, and shed light on the focus in the coming years?

Today, we are working on a scope of three segments: nursery management, canopy management and irrigation management. As we have extended the cooperation for three more years, we are exploring new fields. We are now in a phase in which we have a steering committee in the joint team which defines the new areas of expertise to implement. In the next couple of months, we will bring a delegation of Israeli decision makers and expose them to these new areas and complete the discussion on what will be the new segments. However, in general, we are in discussion on post harvest management - grading, packing, cold storage, and processing.

In addition, we are talking about agricultural machinery - for pruning, harvesting, and water recycling, which is a huge segment in Israel. Agriculture today in Israel is mostly based on irrigation from recycling water and this can also be done in India. As we have knowledge of saline water, this we want to implement in third phase of cooperation. However, still in discussion, this is something we are looking for.

We are practical about the way we are moving and will identify 2-3 sites in India that could be appropriate to establish a site for recycling water for irrigation at the Center of Excellence. In this way, we really have a strategic segment added to the project and it will definitely benefit Indian farmers.

On the other hand, we are looking towards the possibility of adding new crops to the project. We are going to do everything in a teamwork way and do a feasibility study to identify the gaps and challenges and the ways to address them. At each Center, we are planning to establish a packing house. The purpose of this packing house will be to demonstrate and serve Indian farmers, so that they can come at the end of the harvesting season with their produce and pack it in best way. This gives them the choice to market their produce when the demand arise and get the most revenue back to them.

Israel's agricultural and water technology is helping to satisfy global hunger. Enlighten us on the Research and Development (R&D) that goes behind it?

In Israel, R&D is the core of agriculture. We have applied research in the aspect that we know which particles are there in pomegranate, vegetables, mango, etc. Accordingly, based on the crop, we irrigate along the season. Therefore, irrigation is the outcome of climate, crop and soil. We teach the farmers at the center level about different tools and techniques of irrigation and how to evaluate them. Fertigation is also a part of research. It helps in knowing which fertiliser to use and is suitable for irrigation, when and how much is to be implemented. Therefore, I can say, agriculture in Israel is a showcase where people from all over the world come to see this miracle.

Israel has one of the highest 'crop per drop' ratios in the world, using less water than almost every other country to produce high crop output levels. Can Israeli technology helps India achieve the same?

In order to use our water resources in the best way we need to provide not just one solution but a variety of solutions. In Israel, we recycle our domestic water. The water goes through water treatment facilities and goes back to the farmers. More than half of the agriculture sector in Israel uses recycled water. We also pay great importance to drip irrigation that is widely used in Israel. It was invented in Israel during the 1960s and keeps on changing all the time. Drip irrigation brought with it a full agenda of cultivation that include how to manage crops, how to implement fertilisers and so on. It is not only a product but a full principle of how we grow food products with the needed amount of water and fertilisers.

Drip irrigation brought revolution to many crops not only in Israel but also in the world. When we talk about drip irrigation, it is important to mention that Israel has the best products and technology by far. We emphasise on the use of this system and teach our officers at the Centers of Excellence and from them out to farmers. So that they can implement the best systems as well as know that they are using the right tool box, and right components of the system.

Explain the concept of ‘Protective Agriculture’, and it’s potential in helping farmers in India?

Protective agriculture is a revolution in this field. It provides lot of benefits to the farmers. For a farmer, who moves from the open field to protective cultivation, it helps in prolonging the season from 4-6 months to 10-12 months. It means he can cultivate throughout the year. Therefore, through protective cultivation, he can double his season and in turn; it has an immediate impact on the revenue earned by him.

When you go into the structures of protective cultivation, you are preventing many pests that can affect the yield, thereby, reducing investment on spraying pesticides. The other advantages of protective cultivation are that you reduce the evaporation effect, irrigate less and have control of the climate as well as can introduce new crops that cannot be grown outside like cherry tomato, capsicum, etc, depending on the area. Unlike drip irrigation, protective cultivation is like a house where you need to know which house is required for which crop, according to the climate. However, protective cultivation requires huge investment. In India, we have nine centers for protective cultivation and by using these centers as a support; Indian farmers can really work confidently and enhance their revenue.

In your opinion, where does India stands compared to developed countries with regard to agricultural technology?

There is some deep connection between Israel and India, when we talk about agricultural sector. On the technological front, Indian farmers really adopted drip irrigation in an unbelievable way. They are executing and implementing it in their farms in a successful way and this will expand in future also. In my opinion, drip irrigation is by far the most successful examples of technology adoption in India. I can say, in this aspect, India is a pioneer and leading state.