If you have not felt the earth tremble, it is because you don't read the agricultural trade journals and because you do not pay regular visits to the Agriculture Ministry - which is where the earth really is trembling due to all the pressure, all the delegations, all the meetings and all the threats with which Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) must contend today. Why all the fuss? Because the minister was prepared to listen to the counsel of two "bosses" of the agricultural sector of the Israeli economy: Gedalia Gal and Yonatan Bassi.
Gal and Bassi are old hands in the farming profession. Gal is a moshavnik from Kfar Vitkin who recently chaired the board of directors of Tnuva, Israel's dairy and poultry giant, and who previously headed the Knesset's Finance Committee. Bassi is a member of the Religious Kibbutz Movement (Hakibbutz Hadati) from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu who currently chairs the board of directors of Mehadrin, Israel's largest producer of citrus and subtropical fruit and who previously served as director-general of the Agriculture Ministry. The two fear no one, are not afraid to speak their mind, and have the interests of both the agricultural sector and the State of Israel at heart.
Some time ago, they asked to meet with the agriculture minister and told him, "You have a golden opportunity to go down in history as the Great Reformer who changed the face of the Israeli economy and who solved two central problems facing Israel's agricultural sector: the water shortage and the issue of land ownership."
Simhon, who grew up within the agricultural establishment and who, for years, headed the farmers' lobby in the Knesset, was all ears. His response: "OK, let me hear what you have to say. Present me with a working paper on the water shortage problem, because that's really the burning issue today. The question of land ownership can be put on the back burner for now."
Following the meeting with the agriculture minister, Gal and Bassi immediately set to work. Other people given a similar task would have sat down, planning their task over a period of several months and then submitting to the agriculture minister a 100-page report with charts in vivid color and with an endless supply of analyses, conclusions, reservations and recommendations. The report would have then been relegated to some deep desk drawer in the Agriculture Ministry because no one would have had the strength to plow through the text or to digest its contents.
Gal and Bassi went about their business in a totally different manner, producing a report that contained only two (!) pages. The first page presented the facts and figures, while the second offered their recommendations. Because it is so succinct and because it gets down to brass tacks, the report is easily understandable and can elicit immediate responses. That is why this document has produced shockwaves in the agricultural establishment.
According to authors Gal and Bassi, agriculture should be viewed as the supplier of an ecological product whose job is to keep Israel's "green lungs" healthy - meaning that when Israelis emerge from the concrete and steel of their urban landscape, they will be able to soothe their eyes with green surroundings. Furthermore, plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen - which is the precise opposite of what human beings do - and that fact is essential to the maintenance of a high quality of life.
In the view of the report's authors, the idea of subsidizing agriculture through low water prices is economically absurd, because that arrangement only stimulates the consumption of a resource that is in critically short supply in a country situated on the edge of desert terrain. Thus, Gal and Bassi propose two things: First, raising the price farmers must pay for their water so that it equals the price of water that municipal authorities pay, and, second, subsidizing land cultivation.
The two veteran farmers suggest that the price of water for farmers should be raised from its present average level of 80 agorot per cubic meter to what the municipal authorities pay, namely, NIS1.43 per cu/m. That would mean an overall quarter of a million shekel increase in water prices.
At the same time, they urge that a subsidy of NIS 1.30 be provided for every dunam (quarter of an acre) of irrigated land, and 60 agorot for every dunam of naturally irrigated land - irrespective of the crop cultivated. According to their calculations, their cultivated land subsidy system would cost the state treasury NIS 350 million annually. In other words, the state would have to fork out an additional NIS 100 million in subsidies to the farmers. The issue of an additional subsidy to the agricultural sector will certainly inspire some spirited debates.
The immense advantage of the proposed model is that it would finally put an end to the flagrant waste of potable water on crops whose production is simply not cost-efficient. Moreover, Israelis would have a greener, and an ecologically healthier country. The present system of water quota allocations would become history because, at the new prices, demand would not exceed supply.
However, it is very easy to play the role of adviser. All you have to do is write your report and let the others sweat over the implementation and the results. The real risks will have to be taken by the agriculture minister who has in principle accepted the model proposed by Gal and Bassi but who is alone on the front lines facing the massed troops of farmers who like things the way they are today, thank you.
Simhon will thus be put to the test, both personally and politically. The bottom-line question is: Does he have the guts to put his career on the line by pushing the proposed change through both the government and parliament, thereby becoming the Great Reformer of Israeli agriculture?
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