Prof. Benny Chefetz.

"I don't know what the phone of 2050 will look like, but we'll still be eating cucumbers and corn"

Israeli agriculture has been severely impacted by the war. Prof. Benny Chefetz, the new director of the Volcani Center, explains how agriculture will once again become an engine of growth, warns against the drying up of agricultural research and tells about the future field that will be controlled by robots and drones 

The farmers of the Gaza Envelope and northern communities were supposed to celebrate this week during the Shavuot harvest festivities in agricultural settlements. However, this Shavuot finds Israeli agriculture in the greatest crisis in its history: many fields in the north have been abandoned due to the severe security situation, last week's massive fires in the north caused significant damage to orchards and vineyards, some agriculture in the south still operates in a special mode, many foreign workers have left the country and are afraid to return. When the war ends, the recovery period will begin, but the damage to agriculture is expected to affect the crops for years to come.
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פרופ' בני חפץ המנהל החדש של מכון וולקני
פרופ' בני חפץ המנהל החדש של מכון וולקני
Prof. Benny Chefetz.
(Credit: Nimrod Glickman)
A month ago, Prof. Benny Chefetz, a world-renowned expert in agriculture, was pulled from the Hebrew University, where he served, among other roles, as Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, to lead the Volcani Center as the Head of the Agricultural Research Administration. Chefetz will fill what has been a years-long vacuum at one of the world's most prestigious institutes in the field, with the hope of leading it on a new path in a year when it is suffering a sharp cut in government funding, which it so desperately needs.
"We are living today on the fumes of the past," he says in his first interview with Calcalist, referring to Israel's historical image as a leader in agriculture. "Israel has not invested enough money in agricultural research for many years, and there are consequences to this. You can see it in the budget of the Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Agriculture. If in the past there were NIS 100 million ($26 million) a year for research promotion, in recent years there were periods when no calls for proposals were issued at all, and if they were, the amounts were very low."
Not only has the Chief Scientist's budget been cut recently, but the Volcani Center's budget has also shrunk by about NIS 20 million ($5.3 million) a year, after public pressure led to a change in the original plan, which cut about 63 million shekels a year. "My goal is to get through 2024 without harming the Volcani Center and without halting its activities and to set off on a new path in 2025," he says. "It's clear that this will be a problematic year, but we will move forward. In economic crises, a state that acts wisely invests in infrastructure. Once out of the crisis, the infrastructure enables a leap forward. Agricultural research is vital infrastructure that must be strengthened, just like metro systems and roads. Invest in us; we’re like a tree that will yield produce. It will take us a decade, but we can promise future yields. Volcani researchers do their job excellently, but we require a budget."
Most of the institute's budget does not rely on government funding but on raising funds for research from organizations in Israel and around the world. According to Chefetz, "If you decide to abandon Israeli agriculture, there will be severe long-term consequences. Agriculture cannot be measured only by the dollars it brings into the country. Foodtech has brought in a lot of money, but I'm not sure it will continue. I don't know what technology we'll use to talk on the phone in 2050, but I know we'll still eat cucumbers, corn, and parsley. Food is the most consistent thing, and we need to preserve it."
How is this done in practice?
"We will meet with Treasury officials and explain to them why agricultural research is important for Israel's security. We will also explain to them that a significant part of agricultural knowledge is marketable and brings money to the state. It's not just about money; it's also about reputation and prestige, which in our geopolitical situation is worth a lot. It's a long-term contribution to Israel's security."
The Volcani Center relies heavily on international funding. Have you been affected on that front too?
"In 2025, external funding for research at the Volcani Center will be lower than in the past. External funds are withdrawing from Israel, therefore, the government has an obligation to invest in research at the Volcani Center, not just to close this gap, but to create a foundation for the future. Every year we wait, we delay technology and developments by another year. These are studies that take years before results are seen. So, procrastination is bad for everyone, especially considering the significant challenges we face that require solutions such as developing new species, dealing with diseases, and adapting growth protocols to climate change."
Investment in agritech isn’t just a matter of profit, but is a necessity and a call to action. Agriculture is vulnerable to climate change, and the future is worrying. "The climate crisis is putting tremendous pressure on agriculture, and it is arriving earlier than we thought. It causes seasons to shift, changes in rainfall patterns, plant diseases spreading between climate zones, and, of course, changes in agricultural practices," Chefetz says. "This is coupled with population growth, which puts even more pressure on agriculture. By 2050, food production will need to increase by about 70%. These are tremendous pressures and it's unclear whether the global agriculture industry knows how to deal with them. The industry needs to change its concept of operation and commit to being the world's food provider."
Food prices are soaring due to the climate crisis, but simultaneously agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
"The food sector is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture can turn from being a carbon emitter to a carbon absorber, but that is not happening. Today, a farmer operates according to the yield function: the tons of potatoes produced per dunam. We want agriculture to change its approach and become regenerative agriculture, where the goal function is not just yield, but also soil conservation and increasing biodiversity. This means less intensive soil cultivation and reducing pesticide use. Unfortunately, Israeli agriculture is not there - it’s too intensive and traditional. We have not yet cracked how to convince farmers that it is worth switching to more conservation-oriented practices."
Is conservation-oriented agriculture practiced in Israel?
"Absolutely. There is a vineyard in Kidron, with a cover of grass in the center. The farmer doesn’t spray, and the vineyard doesn’t look like a pharmacy. On Kibbutz Hefetz Haim, there is a cornfield planted on a wheat field, without plowing. There are weeds, but they don't kill the corn. These fields require less cultivation and have many more insects, but the yield does not decrease. These are healthier fields in a healthier environment, and they don't have the significant issues seen in other agricultural fields. The corn is the same corn, but it is produced in a more environmentally friendly way, benefiting both the environment and the farmer. It costs the farmer less, pollutes less, and the farmer breathes fewer pollutants and pesticides. Everyone wins."
Sounds great. So, why isn't this happening on a larger scale?
"Farmers are a stubborn bunch. They are educated in their field, understand the issues, but they live on the edge; they are not wealthy and work very hard. They have a lot of uncertainty about what the next season will bring, and no one promises them anything. It's hard to convince them to change what has worked not just for them but for their fathers and grandfathers before them. One must remember that farming is culture, tradition, hard work, and risk management. Farmers need to see farms that operate based on these new principles with their own eyes and see that they save money. We hope that in the Tekuma region, we will see the adoption of quite a few such model farms."
Some of the developments at the Volcani Center these days align precisely with this vision. For example, there is a robot for electrocuting weeds, a robot for automatic spraying, a robot for picking melons from the field, a robot for detecting diseases in vegetable crops, drones that detect water leaks, diseases, or areas that require spraying, and guide the farmer to the affected plant level, and a mechanism that will identify the lifespan of the fruit. The goal is to turn the entire field into a comprehensive system that can communicate with the farmer's phone or computer, help them feel the field in real time, down to the smallest details, and maximize the yield from the same plot of land. Along the way, it also saves resources and costly labor.
"We need to turn sustainable agriculture into digital sustainable agriculture. This means adding data science, robotics, sensors, and decision-making models," says Chefetz. "This doesn’t exist in the world today, and these are things being developed here. Farmers lack the tools to know how to do everything on time, correctly, with a growth function that predicts yield and even its quality and market price. This means, for example, providing tools for immediate decision-making, not just predicting rain on the coastal plain, but precisely at the field level, including the intensity and quantity."
Chefetz refers to many other innovations as well. "Sensors placed in the field that can warn of diseases before they develop and before they become visible to the naked eye. The farmer will be able to preemptively treat and reduce damage. This information will help the farmer decide whether to use pesticides, how much, where, and when to irrigate precisely, thus also saving water. This is the future of agriculture."
Is this not available in the world today?
"It exists in the world in specific areas, but not sufficiently. For example, drones are used in agriculture today. Is it in every field? No. Do we need to get there? Yes. I want the drone to run in the field at six in the morning while the farmer is drinking his coffee, receive a digital picture, and learn what happened overnight. Before he starts the tractor, he will know the state of the field, whether and where to send the workers precisely. If there is a problem, this drone will be able to send a specific drone to spray pesticides on specific trees. This will also save a lot of manual labor."
This vision also addresses the ongoing manpower crisis, unrelated to other crises.
"The issue of manpower is critical in agriculture. Labor is expensive in many places, and the work itself is not simple. We need to move to much more robotics and scientific use to reduce dependency on labor. We saw the importance of this when the war broke out, when foreign workers fled, and Palestinian workers didn’t receive work permits, we lost about 70% of the workforce and agriculture collapsed. The smarter and more comprehensive the machinery, the more it will be part of the solution in this case as well."
How much of the food on one’s plate will come from a lab in the coming years?
"We need to look at consumers as our goal in terms of food safety and security. For example, food sensitivities are increasing. This means agriculture must develop varieties that do not cause sensitivities in people. For instance, new varieties of peanuts. We are doing this here at the Volcani Center. We will produce the same quantity of peanuts, with the same qualities, but our Bamba (a popular Israeli snack) will be allergen-free.
“Looking ahead, agriculture can provide solutions not only for food; eventually, oil will run out, and agriculture can produce substitutes for oil or plastic. Future agriculture will rely quite a bit on cellular agriculture and fermentation, as well as fields like biotechnology and engineering. The consumer will know that their food comes from fields and laboratories, and we will have the ability to produce food that is not dependent on the weather."
You had a comfortable position at the Hebrew University, you’re a leading researcher in your field. Why did you take this position now?
"I hesitated at first, but there was a lot of thought behind it. The Volcani Center is a national asset of the State of Israel - that's clear. Israeli agriculture is also a national asset. I did the math and decided to enlist in reserve duty. It is right to go into public service at this time because through it, a significant contribution can be made to Israel and Israeli agriculture. This is pure patriotism and Zionism. Personally, it is an opportunity to take a huge institution and push it forward. The spirit is already there, the Volcani Center has excellent human infrastructure, but it has lacked management in recent years. My goal is to man the sail and move us forward."
First published: 15:50, 11.06.24