Watering Crops With Desalinated Water in Israel Leading to Mineral Deficiency

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The extensive use of desalinated water to water crops in Israel has reduced the level of magnesium in fruit and vegetables. Magnesium is a crucial mineral, deficiency in which may lead to medical problems, including heart attacks.

Magnesium is critical to the functioning of muscles and the nervous and immune systems. It is also key to regulating various processes.

A study published this month in the periodical Sustainability says the magnesium level in all Israeli-grown fruit and vegetables is lower than in the United States.

A study conducted by Dr. Eran Raveh and Dr. Alon Ben-Gal, both of the Agricultural Research Organization, Volcani Center, has also found that using desalinated water also reduced the saline content in fruit and vegetables.

The study examined more than 13,000 samples of citrus leaves taken during 2008-2016 and 550 samples of 26 kinds of fruit and vegetables collected last year. Before desalinated water was used, the salt concentrations in domestic fruit and vegetables were much higher – sometimes five times higher - than that of the produce of other countries.

The study found that the salt concentrations in the leaves fell by more than 20 percent over the years. The concentration of chloride diminished by 35 percent and the magnesium rate was similarly reduced. The same was observed in fruit and vegetables.

While six years ago only four kinds of fruit and vegetables had lower sodium levels than the American standard, this time the levels were found to be lower in half of the fruit and vegetables – all due to the use of desalinated water.

“These findings have important repercussions for public health,” says Professor Yona Amitai, toxicologist and public health expert in Bar-Ilan University and one of the first to warn of the implications of the lack of magnesium in desalinated water.

The Health Ministry set up an experts’ panel to draft recommendations on the magnesium issue, including a project to enrich water with magnesium. Another possibility is to add magnesium to agricultural products by fertilization, but this would require providing funding for this to farmers.

“The Health Ministry and Water Authority must be urged not to delay the project to enrich water with magnesium,” says Amitai.

Direct water consumption provides for 20 percent of our required magnesium dose. The main other source is food – including green leaves and legumes, some of which weren’t included in the study. The required magnesium consumption recommendations in Israel are generally based on the customary recommendations in the world and the United States.

The Health Ministry said it would appoint a steering committee “tasked with outlining the steps and examining the significance of adding magnesium to desalinated water.”

A picture shows the primary filters, which hold back the dirt from the sea water, at Ashkelon’s seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant, south of Tel Aviv, on July 20, 2008.Credit: AFP/Getty Images