Israeli CEO of Global Pesticide Company: Develop Technology Now to Fight Future Food Shortage

Erez Vigodman, former head of Strauss and current CEO of a global pesticide company, wants to see countries around the world offering incentives to entrepreneurs of agriculture technology.

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Countries around the world must stop providing farmers with subsidies and start offering incentives to entrepreneurs who seek to make agriculture more efficient if global food production is to match the population growth expected within the next four decades, said Erez Vigodman, the CEO of Makhteshim Agan, the world's leading generic agrochemical company.

Just as technology has been used to rapidly click and scroll us through the digital communication age, it must also be developed to help avoid the severe hunger predicted for the coming years, said Vigodman.

"In the last two decades, technological innovations have transformed our world and assisted in speeding up processes in almost all areas, first and foremost in information communication," he said. "The world has become more competitive, but one important field has yet to join the revolutionary process – and that field is agriculture."

Though he now deals with the agriculture side of food manufacturing, as the head of a global pesticide company that operates in 120 countries plus Israel, Vigodman came to Makhteshim after eight years as the president and CEO of Israel's second largest food manufacturer, Strauss. So he knows a little something about food -- and the extent to which it gets wasted.

As part of his vision for a more efficient food industry, Vigodman called for a reduction of waste in picking and storing crops and in food production, packaging and distribution. Some experts say at least 10 tons of food – between 30 percent and 40 percent of all food on the planet – is wasted every day.

Vigodman also highlighted the importance of developing technologies for the more efficient use of land and, especially, water.

"Most of the innovation in this field in the last decades led to an increase in the size of the products, instead of more significant innovations," said Vigodman. "Apart from stopping the waste, the solutions must include more use of land reserves that could be used for agriculture, but the most urgent need is innovative ways to use water. Seventy percent of the water on the globe is used for agriculture, and we must find more efficient ways to use that water."

The two basic elements holding back innovation are farming subsidies, which "distort the market prices and decrease the attraction of investments," and a lack of incentive for entrepreneurs, said Vigodman, who is a member of the advisory committee of Israel's National Economic Council and a graduate of the management development program at Harvard Business School. He is also a director of Teva Pharmeceuticals.

Vigodman is particularly concerned by what some refer to as the global food crisis expected by 2050, when the world population is expected to have expanded by 2.5 billion people, 95 percent of whom will live in developing countries. Some speculate that if drastic steps aren't taken, some of those countries will be facing severe food shortages.

"The role of agriculture today is more important than ever before," said Vigodman. "I have no doubt that the challenge of food makes agriculture the next big thing." He is wary of the popular term "food crisis," which he considers "too extreme," but adds that "even without talking about global crises, the issue of food is crucial".

Israeli farmer as entrepreneur

Israel is increasing its agricultural productivity and holds the world record for reusing the most water for agricultural purposes, said Vigodman.

That can be attributed more to "the creativity of Israelis" than to any kind of government initiative, he said.

"You start off with near-impossible conditions, with hardly any land or water, and with different climates – and the productivity is growing based on innovative changes in production of milk, seeds, fruits and vegetables and the move to aquaculture," he said.

"On top of that, 70 percent of the water used for agriculture is reused water – three times as much as the global average," said Vigodman. "Israel proves that you can promote innovation in agriculture, because it’s a must for survival. The Israeli farmer is educated, an entrepreneur and individualist. He has a deep understanding, and is experienced with dealing with difficult conditions. All these factors created a very high level of agriculture. Still, most of the innovative methods originated from the farmers themselves, not as a result of state-initiated processes."

He said that companies also rarely invest in Israeli agriculture.

For all Israel's achievements in agriculture, the world should look not to this country but to Brazil, which Vigodman said is the leading country in the world when it comes to agricultural research and development.

"The [Brazilian] government initiated the establishment of an organization for applied research, dealing with innovative steps in agriculture, leading some 10,000 technological projects, all focused on suiting the crops with the conditions in Brazil, including the needs, the climate and the agriculture," he said.

All that research, he added, is aimed at strengthening Brazil's standing as a food exporter, indicating that what's good for the world's poor and hungry may also be good for the bottom line.

Cucumber hothouses near Moshav Ahituv homes. Farmers there say they make sure to use insecticides in accordance with Agriculture Ministry restrictions.Credit: Hagai Frid

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