Winds of Change on Israel's Pesticide Problem?

A government decision and conference on environmental health and agriculture in Jerusalem offered a glimpse of Israel's future without a pesticide cloud hanging overhead.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The liberal use of pesticides is a well-known issue in Israel, but developments in the capital this week offered some hope of change.

The government resolved Monday to drastically limit the use in Israel of nine insecticides, said the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry. The decision, which targets a subgroup of pesticides known as organophosphates, was made by an inter-ministerial committee that sets government policy on herbicides and pesticides. The ministry said it would publish details of the committee's meeting in the next few days.

The importance of reducing the use of such chemicals was highlighted last week by the International Symposium on Agriculture and Environmental Health at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem.

At the conference, which was sponsored by the Hebrew University Center of Excellence in Agriculture and Environmental Health and supported by the Environment and Health Fund, Professor Brenda Eskanazi of the School of Public Health at University of California at Berkeley presented the results of research in California on the health outcomes of pesticide exposure. The research studied the effects of organophosphate pesticide exposure on female migrant workers from Mexico who live and work in agricultural areas. Tests showed a link between exposure to such pesticides and the IQ and mental and reflex development of future children. Children have less of a gene that neutralizes organophosphate poisons, which damage the nervous system.

Professor Shanna Swan of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of MedicineSwan noted at the conference that research from around the world, including Israel, points to a continuing reduction in the quality of male sperm. She presented studies linking this phenomenon, as well as problems with the sexual development of fetuses, to exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, including pesticides.

The data from the United States are particularly worrying, since the level of pesticide use in Israel is much higher than is accepted elsewhere in the development world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. There are areas in Israel, such as around the city of Ness Ziona and moshavs in the Sharon Plain, where residents believe their health is being endangered by the spraying of pesticides near residential neighborhoods. Such concerns make the search for alternatives or ways to reduce the public's exposure to chemical pesticides more urgent.

Professor Moshe Coll of the Department of Entomology of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem spoke about insecticide-free agricultural systems. He presented a number of studies proving it is possible to efficiently use biological methods of pest control. In particular, he noted the proven benefits of allowing natural plant growth alongside agricultural fields. In some plant species, this allows the development of a population of insects that are natural prey for the insects that damage agricultural crops, reducing the need for farmers to purchase large quantities of expensive chemicals from commercial firms.

Coll noted that biological methods of pest control have proven particularly effective in growing strawberries, which used to require a very high level of pesticide use. Today the majority of strawberry growers in Israel do not use chemical insecticides, he said.

There are other signs of change in the use of pesticides in Israel. A year ago, the citrus fruit growers in the Western Galilee issued a joint statement, along with their packing house, pledging to stop all aerial chemical pesticide spraying in the area for the Mediterranean fruit fly and instead to use traps containing natural bait.

Another initiative to reduce the use of pesticides came from Northern R&D, a division of Migal - Galilee Technology Center, a life science applied research institute specializing in biotechnology, agriculture and the environment.The project started with providing farmers with explanatory materials and otherwise improving their knowledge of pesticides and their alternatives, said Liora Shaltiel-Harpaz, a researcher at the institute and an expert in plant protection. It now focuses on alternatives to the use of chemical pesticides. The Galil Elyon Regional Council and Mevo'ot Hermon Regional Council along with scientists from the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Researchhave joined the effort.

In the Hula Valley area, farmers have started regularly receiving information about pests, allowing them to spray only when necessary. In a recent trial, farmers in communities farther north, where homes and bed and breakfasts sit near agricultural lands, stopped using organophosphate pesticides against flies, something they used to do almost every year. Some farmers were already using natural traps, inspired by local residents who used them in their yards, and the Northern R&D project helped convince them of the efficacy of the method, said Shaltiel-Harpaz. The number of sprayings in the area has decreased significantly, she said, and some farmers have stopped using chemical pesticides entirely.

Spraying against locusts around the greenhouses of Kadesh Barnea in the Negev.Credit: Alberto Denkberg

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