Thursday, November 7, 2013

The world Ag-rees, that Israel is a leader in agriculture

Shalom faithful readers! It's been too long since I posted here. An onslaught of stories in my inbox about Israeli innovation in the field of agriculture was just what I needed to get back on the ball. Let's explore what's new:

First up, is an agreement between Japan and Israel to join forces on agricultural R&D. Both nations have shared interests in finding ways to get more production out of the land, as Japan is also has relatively limited amount of arable land on which to sustain its population. The Japanese, which are known for their penchant for seafood, are also looking to learn from Israeli aquaculture techniques, waste water treatment for irrigation, among other areas that the Jewish nation has extensive experience with.

Next, a friend sent me this Indigogo campaign to help the Jewish community in Uganda to develop their agricultural ability and enhance local food security. Israeli and Ugandan scientists are working together to explore ways to harvest the excess precipitation that falls during the rainy season, in order to supplement irrigation during the dry season, and thereby ensuring reliable food production all year.

Perhaps the Ugandan community should be in touch with Amir Yecheili: high school science teacher by day, storm water collection expert by night, or at least in the afternoons when he's done teaching. Amir figured out how to outfit public schools in Israel with rain catchment contraptions that will provide the buildings enough water for 100 days each year. That's almost 30% of the school year that the water  to flush toilets and water gardens will be provided for free. His efforts to bring this technology to schools, and fight through the inevitable red tape to get it implemented, also raised the awareness of water issues for the students, who by their own admission are much more likely to notice and report leaky faucets or running toilets. This is very significant, because as Amir mentioned, one day these kids will be in positions of power across the country and will have a sustainable mindset that is often lacking today. Even if these kids don't go on to become mayors or otherwise work for local governments, they still will have influence over their own families, and thereby be able to perpetuate this ideology.

Lastly - Texas A&M has announced its intention to open a branch of the university in Israel. While I didn't see any specifics about the courses being offered, it doesn't take a leap of faith to assume that there will be some interesting research coming out of the agricultural institution. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Five year olds will save the world

I enjoy finding 'natural' was of cleaning, first looking to vinegar and baking soda before purchasing more caustic, and expensive, conventional cleaning products. As such, friends often come to me to ask for advice on alternative ways of cleaning. In the weeks before Passover, when most of the Jewish world is scouring their homes for ever last spec of bread and dust, I was discussing this topic with a friend who takes a class on Jewish women with me. Our teacher over heard one of the conversation and excitedly interjected, "I love baking soda! I use it to clean almost every surface in my house."

"Rebbitzen, that's so great," I replied, "I didn't know you were into the environment."

"I'm not," she said with a laugh. "I never really cared about 'sustainability' until I sent my youngest son to a local kindergarten. He came home with a note from the teacher saying parents are not allowed to send lunch and snacks to school disposable bags, as part of an effort to teach the children how to live more sustainably. Of course, I was aggravated at first, but during the course of the year, I really started to get into learning how to reduce and reuse, and now it's second nature in almost everything we do at home."

I was intrigued - here is someone who didn't care about the environment at all, and, as I later found out, was actually skeptical of movements associated with environmental awareness. Yet now, she's completely changed her behavior. Plus, as the mother, her habits have the potential to change the behavior of her kids, and ultimately their families, and so on.

She agreed to be interviewed on how one small action could lead to such a big change. Out of respect to her family (and kids, who tend to be mortified when their parents brag about them) I'm not publishing her name or any other personal details.

Q: What was your attitude towards the environment growing up?
A: I grew up in America in the 60s - during the time of the hippies. I associated ecology with free love, and other things not accepted in my upper middle class orthodox community in Flatbush (Brooklyn), NY. We had a relative who was into 'this stuff' and I saw the environment as being associated with the war in Vietnam - definitely wasn't a Jewish thing to do.

Living in New York City, people did talk about air pollution - but just to the extent that it existed, never that we could do anything about it. In the 80s people started talking about aerosol and not using sprays, but that was the extent of it in my world.

Q: What was the attitude towards the environment when you made aliyah?
A: I came to Israel in 1981. Environmental consciousness in Israel was about the same as in the US - in that it was associated with being a left-wing thing to do. In religious newspapers you would see lots of ads 'make your holiday easier with disposables', so reducing garbage or anything like that wasn't on the radar.

Q: What inspired your paradigm shift?
A: One of my kids went to Gan [Kindergarten] - and the Ganedit [teacher] said, "We are going to be environmental." She told the students they had to bring their food in a reusable plastic container - no more plastic bags. This was a shock! It was never told to the parents - my kid came home and said this is what my teacher said. The change was very difficult - you are used to giving your kid a sandwich in a plastic bag, and now I have to change my behavior. A lot of parents complained, and some flat out refused. They weren't going to let their kid's teacher tell them what to do. 

With this one action I started to notice the waste I was producing everywhere. I realized that you don't have to go out and buy so much - for example I can repurpose the hummus container to store things instead of buying new plastic containers. 

Another son went to a Talmud Torah in Bat Ayin - in Bat Ayin you expect that they are going to come home with this behavior. But in this school they had specifically a 'Rav Ecologia' [The Environment Rabbi]. It was its own class, which shows the respect they gave the subject - he wasn't just a teacher, he was the Rav.

Q: How did the rest of your family feel about these changes?
A: With two kids being taught the value of the environment, the whole family started to think green. The kids did a lot of things with reusing, such as making garden beds and a green house out of reused materials. I have a large family and would use Echat Pa'im [disposable products] to make Shabbat clean up easier. My husband  though wanted to use Rav Pa'amim [reusable] dishes and was even willing to wash the dishes! For him though it went even deeper than just the waste - how are we going to eat a nice meal off of plastic? 

One of my kids was vegetarian before he went to school. But the more he learned in school about how destructive soy and corn is to the environment he really wanted to change everyone's behavior. Anyone who wants to take the sandwich in a reusable bag can, and whoever wants the disposable bags, we have that too. No one forced anyone to do anything.

Q: Have you saved money since you change your behavior?
A: Ultimately, only with the driving. I wish the reusable or biodegradable materials were subsidized since they are so expensive. So even though I'm using less, I end up spending more, and come out even. But when it comes to my car, I've started only driving if it's for a big shopping or I'm taking a lot of people. Otherwise I'll walk or take public transport, so I've saved a lot on gas. 

Q: Any other thoughts?
A: I never would have done these things if it wasn't for my kids. These ideas just weren't considered Jewish - destroying the world G-d made. I'm not so sure it's acceptable in society anymore to be so destructive. The stores where they sell the environmental things perhaps have more shoppers.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Woodsy The Owl Comes to Israel

As an American, I take certain things for granted living in Israel: property taxes are paid by the landlord and not the tenant; buying items in bulk is cheaper than smaller sizes; almost no one would think of littering at a National Park.

None of these hold true in Israel. 

While I've unfortunately seen Israelis littering all over the country, my visit to the Dead Sea this week was especially troubling, as I witnessed students on a field trip throwing their trash into the famous body of water. While it's not inconceivable to think that some kids might throw trash into the Grand Canyon, I can't believe that if they did it in front of their teachers, as these girls did, they would not be reprimanded.

I channeled my concern into an op-ed for the Times of Israel.

It's not enough for me to post something and move on. There needs to be a campaign to educate and inspire Israelis to take better care of their land. If no one else wants to do it, I will.

Something this big I can't accomplish alone. I need your help. Please spread the word. I'm working on a slogan in Hebrew, suggestions are welcomed. Please contact me if you would like to help.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Renewable energy is national security

During my time in Israel so far, throughout conversations with various Israelis I have heard the same thing: Israel doesn't have the luxury of worrying about renewable energy when they have so many pressing national security issues.

I think this wrong and short sighted. Removing Israel's dependence on fossil fuels can only strengthening Israel - both in terms of security and economically. Of course, it's also valuable environmentally, but at this point don't think it should be stressed as a primary motivation for taking action.

Over time, I hope to explore the far-reaching national security and environmental repercussions of Israel's dependence on fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), some obvious and some less obvious, as well as how they affect Israel's relationship with other countries.

You can read my first such post published over at the Times of Israel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Leaf it to Israel this Tu B'Shevat

This Friday night (Shabbat) marks the Jewish semi-holiday of Tu B'shevat. Literally, the 15th of the month of Shevat is known mystically as the New Year of the Trees.

For people of a certain generation, Tu B'shevat evokes fond memories of donating spare change to the JNF - Jewish National Fund - to support their afforestation efforts in Israel. Afforestation is the concept of planting trees where there were none before (reforestation is planting trees that had once stood, but were cut down). 

Driving through the forests from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh or around Arad, it's easy to take for granted how successful JNF has been. Less than 100 years before the creation of the state, Mark Twain visited the land of Israel in 1867 and wrote of, " ...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse....There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country." 

Twain would hardly recognize the land today, with 240 million new trees planted. Notably, Israel is the only country in the past 100 years to have a net gain of trees. Numerous countries around the globe are facing desertification - where unsustainably harvested forests suffer from the effects of erosion, which quickly turns into wasteland. JNF's guidance has been sought after by many other countries and international organizations looking for help with their efforts to curb desertification in their own land.

The trees were planted for many reasons: to curb mudslides in the mountainous north, as part of efforts to drain swamp land and make it suitable for agriculture, provide shade in the hot desert sun, and also just to give new immigrants flocking to the country in the first half of the 20th century something to do.

When it came down to what species of tree to plant the decision on Aleppo pine wasn't too controversial - it's indigenous to the region and grows quickly in the rocky soil. It wasn't until many years later, after forest fires started to become a regular concern in the beginning of the 21st century, the the old, homogenous forests started to become a liability.

During the 2006 war with Lebanon, rockets fired by Hizbullah set fire to thousands of acres of trees in in north. Four years later, a devastating fire that broke out on Mount Carmel  Carmel region killed 44 people and consumed 5 million trees. Many fires broke out around the country over the summer of 2012 that were attributed to arson.  Fires were never part of the natural forest ecology in this region, but with this new threat facing the land, how forests are planted here had to be rethought.

Efforts are being made by the Ministry of the Environment with the help of JNF to replant burned forest with a mixture of tree types to help guard against new wildfires sweeping through, as well as to promote the health of the forests in general.

*Bonus* Israeli election day fun fact! The first Knesset convened purposely on Tu B'shvat.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Where is the Israeli Al Gore?

Something I've been wondering while trying to follow the upcoming Israeli election: where is the discussion of energy and environmental issues? Is there no politician focused on this arena? Are the Israelis lacking an 'Ozone Man'?

I began my investigation by checking out the Likud party - the party currently in power, who is also expected to at least retain the Prime Minister position. The bulk of Likud's platform is dedicated to Israel's security, with some ideas for economic and social concerns at the bottom of the list. If the current front-runner for the Prime Minister position, along with the bulk of seats in the Knesset, doesn't mention anything about the environment or energy - can it really be a priority for any of the parties?

Next, I tried to cast a wide net to see where the other major parties stand. The Jerusalem Post has a handy quiz to help you figure out which party is most in line with your values. It's worth noting that not one of the 30 questions asked relates in any way to the environment. There are a few questions regarding social and economic concerns in the society. Ultimately, it seems that the environment isn't anyone's radar.

Professor Adi Wolfson, of the Shamoon College of Engineering Green Processes Center recently explained the silence to the fact that there are no disagreements. The idea being if everyone agrees, what is there to discuss? Professor Wolfson further reckons another, and perhaps more important reason it's not discussed: because voters don't really care. Whether the public doesn't care because too much of their energy is spent on security concerns or due to a culture that just doesn't place value on these ideas, we can hopefully explore at a later time.

Much to my delight, I eventually found that there is one party that explicitly promotes the need for an environmental blueprint for Israel - Tzippi Livni's Hatunah party. Ms. Livini had previously helped to start the Kadima party in 2005, but left it last year. Her new party joined forces with the Green Movement Party and, unsurprisingly, its platform focuses on the environment.

While it can be expected that the Green Movement would advocate sustainability, Ms. Livni's motivation seems to be from a more traditional political perspective: how her platform will create jobs, improve constituent quality of life, and strengthen Israel's energy independence. These don't need to be niche values only taken up by one party. Anyone serious about the welfare of the State of Israel and its people have no excuse not to include these points in their own party's platform.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Israel's solar power industry French, fried

I recently read that France's national electric company is setting up a field of solar panels (which were also made in France) in the Negev.

While I'm pleased to read about the new initiative -why is France setting up a new solar energy field in Israel?

Israel is no slouch when it comes to photovoltaics - we are the largest user of solar power per capita - with over 85% of all homes using a dude shemesh, or solar water heater. The wide-spread adaptation of this technology can be traced back to the 1950s, when a severe energy crises drove the government to eventually mandate the solar water heater as a way to reduce the country's dependence on imported sources of energy (oil, coal, gas). Heating water can consume up to 40% of a home's total energy use, so this means significant savings for Israelis.

Another example of a country that has seen great strides in the utilization of this technology through government intervention is Germany. It is the world's leading producer of energy from solar power - a country much further north and with much greater cloud cover than Israel.

On average, Israel consumes about 12,000 megawatts  (MW) of electricity per year. Virginia, which has slightly more people than here, consumes 110 million MW of electricity. In comparison, Israel's energy demands seem rather paltry.

So, we've established that sunny Israel has the natural capacity to generate large amounts of energy from solar panels, the ability for the government to institute policies to encourage (or force) people to buy the technology, and in comparison to other similar populations, the energy consumed seems that it could reasonably be met with renewable energy.  What is the hold up?

Some blame the Ministry of Finance, which is reluctant to pay the subsidies that encourage homeowners to install solar panels. What about a commercial power plant? In this case, there is the issue of red tape - according to Haaretz, 24 government offices that must grant approval for a new power plant to function. How bad is the buracracy in Israel? I recently visited a local wine producer, who told me that they have been waiting 10 years for government permits to come through that allow them to function legally. Unfortunately, a project as high profile as a major power plant doesn't have the luxury of building first and applying for permits later. In addition, another financial incentive started by the government in 2008 that would pay developers of new photovoltaic energy above market rates for the electricity they generate hasn't gotten off the ground. The government is constantly changing the price they are willing to pay, in order to not feel like it's paying too much. In the meantime, it is hard to encourage investors to give money to a program that doesn't have any reliability.

Fortunately, there is hope for the industry in Israel. The pioneer Arava Power Company, which launched the country's first commercial solar power field in June of 2011. Built with a seemingly paltry capacity of 4.95 MW on Kibbutz Ketura, the success of this field inspired international electricity giant Siemens to invest in the company. Together, they are now planning a new field with the capacity of 58 MW.

It's a start. One can hope that Arava's efforts will help to reduce government inertia and pave the way for other companies to begin opening their own fields and for investors to feel confidant about sending their money to Israel.

Then we can read about Israeli companies opening solar fields in France!