Israel’s Food Sustainability Movement

By Sydney Brown

Israel relies heavily on drip irrigation to facilitate sustainable farming. Photo: Avishai Finkelstein

The food sustainability movement is flourishing in Israel. With a wide variety of fresh produce from the Mediterranean region, weather that encourages people to spend time outside, and a vibrant food culture that celebrates farm to table eating, Israel is making strides towards sustainability.

Israel has become a world leader in sustainable agriculture, thanks in large part to drip irrigation, a micro-irrigation system that aims to save water over time with specifically placed valves and pipes that emit water through filters and follow a planned distribution path to evenly hydrate plants. Variants on this water distribution system date back as far as ancient China, where they used buried clay pots filled with water to experiment with different ways of watering plants. The first notable surface drip irrigation emitter, which applies water directly to the top layer of the soil rather than below the surface, was developed in 1959 by Simcha Blass in Israel. The technique was further developed in Kibbutz Hatzerim, a commune near the Negev desert. Drip irrigation is vital, especially in an arid country like Israel, because it allows gardens and farms to grow crops with a limited water supply. The water can be specifically manipulated to reach the roots of the plants, wasting less and improving the quantity of flora that can thrive and continue to produce. Furthermore, as less water gets wasted, the roots of the plants become more nourished, and the quality of the produce is improved as well.

Drip irrigation is not Israel’s only mechanism to conserve water. Pioneered by Tal-Ya Water Technologies, Israeli engineers have figured out a way to limit water waste with a reusable tray that collects dew from the air. This has significantly decreased the amount of water needed to keep trees and plants healthy, decreasing the amount of fertilizer needed for the crops. Tal-Ya translates to “heavenly dew,” and their company mission is to make agricultural practices more sustainable. Essentially, they want to produce a lot of plants with minimal resources and waste. The fully recyclable product they’ve created works by utilizing rainwater and dew optimally, reducing water use by at least 50% and increasing crop yield.

Fresh produce grown on the roof of an Israeli mall. Photo: Zach Pontz

Seed and plant breeding has also helped sustainability efforts since the birth of the state. Seed and plant breeding is used to manipulate certain plants to improve their function, appearance, and aroma. In the process of seed breeding, new crop varieties are purposefully interbred to develop unique varieties of produce. This method is important for creating new types of vegetation, which in turn leads to more biodiversity. Due to this production technique, Israel has been able to produce nutrient-dense seeds, yielding highly functional and drought-resistant crops. Most commonly used in the Central District of Israel, seed and plant breeding has also allowed for the production of a wide variety of crops for a more varied and unique diet.

One of the restaurants leading the charge to become sustainably sourced is Opa, a vegan establishment that focuses on seasonal and local produce to make the connection between people and their food. Located in Tel Aviv, Opa was founded by chef Shirel Berger, who cooks primarily with fruits and vegetables. She is passionate about the artistic value of plant foods and extols the virtues of locally grown produce. It’s important to look at food sustainability through the lens of a restaurant like Opa, where they make plant based eating accessible and approachable, but also celebrate local produce and the spirit of Israel’s environment. Berger uses inspiration from the restaurant’s rooftop agriculture landscape and produce from local farmers to create vegan fine dining dishes like fava beans with za’atar and strawberries and their seasonal mushroom dish with fried sage. Through the use of typical fruits, vegetables, and grains, Opa has been able to show how delicious and exciting eating plant-based, sustainable, and ethically sourced food can be. Opa also focuses on where they source their food from, harvesting only within a certain area to remove the unnecessary pollution and energy loss that comes from transporting goods.

Opa chef and founder Shirel Berger cultivating a dish outside. Photo: Opa Instagram

Tel Aviv has become a hot spot for plant-based cooking and eating. A large variety of vegan restaurants make delicious, innovative, and consciously sourced food. Like many other businesses at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Opa struggled. In hopes of wasting less food, they pickled and jarred all that they could and made changes to their massive rooftop garden to preserve the plants and herbs.

Influenced by creative restaurants like Opa, many companies tied to food culture in Israel have added sustainable food practices into their repertoire. Hava and Adam, an eco-educational farm, was founded outside of Tel Aviv with the goal of connecting Israelis to their environment, and to have a better understanding of the food they eat. Another similar sustainability effort is the Dizengoff Center Urban Community Garden, located on the rooftop of Israel’s busiest mall, which houses urban style gardens, grows local sustainable produce, and features workshops to get the community involved in learning more about these principles. Throughout Israel’s history, the nation has excelled in and focused on food and water conservation. It is inspiring to see how businesses are carrying the torch of sustainability.

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