Israel’s Pioneering Impact on Global Food, Water and Energy Security

Israel’s Pioneering Impact on Global Food, Water and Energy Security

Penny S. Tee Article

I am such a geek. This article is about what I learned and researched afterwards at the 2020 Jewish National Fund Virtual National Conference and this session was on “What’s in Store for the World: The Future of Global Food, Water, and Energy Security. I am just one of those people who get excited when I learn something new, and God knows there is a wide berth for discovery : )

This session opened so many new worlds to me. It seemed magical, filled with what appeared impossible: abundant water in a desert, changing plants’ anatomical structure to lessen the quantity of water required to grow, eliminating my pet peeve of hunger in the world in the next 20 years. Wow, we have come a long way toward those Star Trek adventures the men in my family seem to long for. Get ready for a magical mystery tour of agricultural high tech.

The panelists were brainiacs in the world of global food, water, and energy security. They have been impressed at what Israel has been able to accomplish in these areas in the middle of a water deprived desert. As for me, I was like a proud Jewish mama listening to the huge strides, innovations and how Eretz Israel helps the entire world―it always makes me kvell (well up with pride).

Seth M. Siegel

Seth M. Siegel

Seth M. Siegel is an author of three books, two on water, “Let There Be Water, Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World,” and “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink,” and followed by a third book of quotes, “Other People’s Words.” Someone who supports Israel’s technological advancements and loves words―he sounded just like the kind of person I wanted to know more about. Do not worry, what he had to say could not be dry, padum pum, and I found it amazing how Israel despite being 2/3 desert and 1/3 semi-arid, is water abundant. 2/3 of Israel’s water comes from developed water. Only 1/3 comes from a natural source like a lake or river. I wondered how they managed that, and I was soon to find out. It is a lesson in “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Siegel is a fellow proponent of Israel touting “how water-poor Israel used smart policies and home-grown technologies to transform itself from one of the driest countries in the world into a water superpower.” Mazel tov!

Professor Joaquin Ruiz

Professor Joaquin Ruiz

Professor Joaquin Ruiz is VP of Global Environmental Future at the University of Arizona. He’s also the Director of Biosphere 2, a “mini-Earth,” that includes seven biome areas: a rainforest, ocean with a coral reef, desert, mangrove, savannah, agricultural system and human habitat all in an enclosed ecological system located in Oracle, AZ and owned by the University of AZ. The fact that it was built in Oracle seems Divinely guided and appropriate, don’t you think?

Howard Yana-Shapiro, Ph.D.

Howard Yana-Shapiro, Ph.D.

Howard Yana-Shapiro, Ph.D. is an author and Chief Agricultural Officer Emeritus, Mars Fellow, and Mars Incorporated Distinguished fellow for Nairobi chief fellow in UCDavis. He is an expert in plant breeding, molecular biology, genomics, genetics landscaping and ecologies. Frankly, his list of titles and accomplishments goes on and on, but I have to admit when I saw Mars Fellow and found it was the chocolate factory and not the planet, let’s just say I was craving to know more. He has even coauthored “Great Moments in Chocolate History: With 20 Classic Recipes from Around the World,” and has given a talk for JNF previously on the “Chocolate History and the Jews.”

The new words I learned were fun for me to investigate. I had never heard them before, so I had to look up what the heck they were talking about. Give a writer new words well, we have a “thing” for them. Roget is my hero, but these terms would not be found amidst his pages, they are too new and technologically specific.

Agrivoltaics or agrophotovoltaics (APV) is co-developing the same area of land for both solar photovoltaic power as

Crops with solar panels

Crops with solar panels

well as for agriculture. I am sure you’ve got agriculture covered. Photovoltaic (PV) power is the conversion of light into electricity using semiconducting materials that exhibit the photovoltaic effect (the generation of voltage and electric current in a material upon exposure to light).1

Put into English I could understand, agrivoltaics or agrophotovoltaics (APV) is the coexistence of solar panels and crops sharing the light between these two types of production. Phew, I understood it now and will clarify it further, so do not give up. There are just a few, so bear with me. Admittedly, sometimes a picture is easier to understand than words.

Evapotranspiration (ET) is the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration from the Earth’s land and ocean surface to the atmosphere. Evaporation accounts for the movement of water to the air from sources such as the soil, canopy interception, and water bodies.

Biodiversity loss is a decrease in biodiversity within a species, an ecosystem, a given geographic area, or Earth as a whole. Biodiversity, or biological diversity is a term that refers to the number of genes, species, individual organisms within a given species, and biological communities within a defined geographic area, ranging from the smallest ecosystem to the global biosphere.2 If variety is the spice of life, this is the opposite, and is a definitive reduction in diversity.

Another proud moment was when the topic of JNF’s collaboration with the University of Arizona and the Arava Regional Councils was discussed. They have formed the JNF Joint Institute for Global Food, Water, and Energy Security, whose mission is to introduce innovative technology and build capacity for food, water, and energy security in vulnerable communities, with a focus on Africa. Now that’s putting donations into great use saving lives once again employing the Maimonides famous quote, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The world population is 7.7 billion people today and expected to climb to more than 9.7 billion people by 2050. People suffering from extreme poverty and living in vulnerable communities will face extreme challenges in food security, energy production, economic opportunities, clean air, waste management, and sufficient water for drinking and agriculture.

Siegel acknowledges in, “Let There Be Water,” that the world faces new water crises every day due primarily to climate change, growing population, rising affluence and pollution.

In the United Nations World Water Development Report 2020, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO acknowledged that “four billion people currently experience severe physical water scarcity for at least one month per year” and “one million animal and plant species are facing extinction.”3

Yet, “water does not need to be a problem – it can be part of the solution.”4 Despite all the challenges, this was a key, positive revelation.

Siegel informed us that even before Israel was a state during the late 1920s and early 1930s the Zionists had established three priorities: defense, immigration absorption and water. They assigned the task of solving the water issue to a relatively unknown man, Simcha Blass. He invented drip irrigation, reuse of sewage and he was talking about desalinization of water back before the 1950s. Every water technology Israel uses today including the relocation of water, drilling in specific places, taking brackish water out of the Arava, and treating it, and making new use of water, we owe to the brilliance of Mr. Blass.

During this panel we learned that Israel holds many solutions and could be a role model for the entire world.  When Siegel was researching about Israel and their water supply, he expected to find that this little parched nation was struggling, but instead found that they were thriving. Israel lies in the driest area in the world, has the world’s fastest growing population and the most dynamic economy in the world other than Singapore and South Korea. This usually indicates huge volumes of water usage, and facing climate change, just like the rest of us. Despite these challenges, Israel is able to supply its citizens with all of the water and food they need―even helping other nations.

In fact, he said that Israel shares their water supply with Palestinians (60% of the Palestinian’s water in the West Bank comes from Israel; 15% of water in Gaza (even during periods of conflict.) and 10% of Jordan’s water comes from Israel. I hoped that the Palestinian people knew this fact and that their leaders did not hide this information from them. Water was helping build a bridge toward Peace. Amen.

It is unfortunate that these positives regarding Israel and the Palestinians are rarely reported. When Siegel realized that Israel’s technological wizardry and humanitarian aid was not found in any book he could find, he decided to write one of his own, which became, “Let There Be Water, Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World.” It became a global bestseller and has been printed in 18-19 languages and distributed in 50+ countries.

Even so, this mensch (good person with integrity and honor), donates all the royalties to water-themed charities. He says this gives him an extra boost of joy. He considers himself part Paul Revere, alerting the world that water and water scarcity is a hazard looming before us. But also Johnny Appleseed, in that he has told this positive story to hundreds of audiences around the world, which gives the communities and countries opportunities to rethink their ideas about water and water scarcity. This allows them to change their future before it is too late.

One interesting story that Professor Joaquin Ruiz told was about how the precursor to Biosphere 2 had failed. It was a fourteen-acre sealed glass dome, preventing the inside atmosphere from interacting with anything outside―or at least that was the intention. He confessed that most scientific experiments fail. Did you know that? I did not.

He piqued my interest as he continued. He told us that experiments like these usually fail because they are trying out various theories and suppositions. “If it doesn’t fail, that means you haven’t learned a thing because you already knew everything, and you just had proven it.” This philosophy really aligned with my favorite definition of F.A.I.L. First Attempt In Learning. Suffice it to say, they learned lots.

The failure he detailed of the 2½ year experiment had to do with both physical and psychological reasons. The physical issues dealt with the atmosphere within the biosphere. Mistakes in assumptions that caused them intentionally not to seal the floor, soil composition and the interchange of oxygen, carbon dioxide and the rainforest producing greenhouse gases, all played a role in needing to shut it down. For instance, the soil sucked up all the oxygen in the biosphere. After about a year, the oxygen concentration in the biosphere was like as if they were living at an elevation of 15,000 feet. That is the equivalent of extremely high altitude. The participants must have been physically miserable and wondering why they had agreed to be guinea pigs.

An added complexity was that eight of the participants, who were highly intelligent (they were all national academy members), did not know how to grow food.

The psychological issues were disappointing. Apparently it did not take long before a Westside Story kind of Jets vs. Sharks display overtook the participants, and they broke into two detest-filled groups who would not speak to the “other.” Oy. Is it in our DNA not to get along? Maybe they will study that next.

I would normally wish Biosphere 2 good luck, but after Professor Ruiz’s comment about failure, I am not sure that would be the best outcome. What do you think? Since he also told us that Biosphere 2 was concentrating on global climate change progression, sustainability, and resiliency, I am hoping their mistakes will lead them to plausible solutions.

Howard Yana-Shapiro, Ph.D. seemed like a genius Santa Claus complete with a long-flowing white beard. He mused that he always knew that he wanted to study nature. As a five-year-old child, he worked on a farm after school to help with the harvest. He was always fascinated that you can “start with a seed and it grows into something that takes value from the sun and when you add some water, it produces biomass (for you or me that might be a tomato, zucchini or cow) that is nutritive to all of us around the world whether in the animal or human kingdom.” Spoken like a true biologist.

He had a challenging childhood that for some of us would have been hell on Earth, but he thrived. Just another example of it takes all kinds to make the world go around : ) He told us that his family’s tradition was to complete mathematical problems in their heads on car rides―no paper allowed. Isn’t that why God invented calculators? It was a lesson to think three-dimensionally and from a systems perspective. Like I said, he is brilliant, and we are all glad I was not driving, I might have headed straight for the cliff.

He warned: “It’s great to make a discovery but if you don’t translate it to have scale and impact, then it just was a wonderful idea that you thought of, wrote a scientific paper on, and you put it on the shelf again.”

When asked if the world is suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition or is it only a matter of supply chains, it peaked my long-time frustration questioning why we still have hungry people in this technologically proficient and seemingly caring world.

I was enheartened to hear that he felt we should be able to eliminate all chronic hunger and malnutrition in his lifetime. Amen.

But then he also gave us some disconcerting present-day statistics of those suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition: 48% suffer in the rural sector of India, 37% of the children in Africa under the age of five are stunted because of it, and the United States rounds out the grim stats with 7%. Now with COVID and all the unemployment increasing, so many more people are hungry, Oy.

These are complex, big system issues with far reaching consequences that impact all of us as well as everyone around the world. He said, “These are the agricultural, economic, environmental, social, cultural and political issues of our day.”

He shared that lack of food production is “the biggest threat to the planet.” And he revealed concerning facts, first of which caught my attention was that 70% of freshwater use is in agriculture. I had no idea of this pertinent fact, did you? This made me realize the importance of Israel’s advanced agricultural water conservation techniques they have developed.

We have lost 70% of our biodiversity. Species have disappeared at an alarming rate.

85% of the marine stocks have been fully exploited. There is a fine line between “fully exploited” and “over exploited” with hungry people lying in the chasm. Too many dead fish stink. We must be careful.

Agriculture uses the most chemicals. We must cautiously weigh the benefits vs. the potential negative impact on health and the environment.

50% of topsoil has been lost around the world. World Wildlife reports that “the effects of soil erosion go beyond the loss of fertile land. It has led to increased pollution and sedimentation in streams and rivers, clogging these waterways and causing declines in fish and other species. And degraded lands are also often less able to hold onto water, which can worsen flooding.5

Food production is responsible for 25% of Greenhouse Gas GHG emissions. Food emissions in livestock & fisheries, crop production, land use and supply chains account for 31%, 27%, 24% and 18%, respectively.6

Shapiro warned that the social component of resolving these issues is especially important. Sending a box filled with technological solutions to an NGO in Africa will not solve the problem if governance and the culture of the community is ignored. The box must be opened and used to help.

But it is not all gloom and doom. Surprisingly, the young state of Israel is ready, willing, and able to fly in as the agricultural superhero. What they have accomplished in the areas of water conservation and plant breeding truly is astounding.

Water Conservation

Siegel informed us that although annoying, the water shortage is not caused by your daughter taking too long of a shower. Agriculture is the culprit. The massive average water use of freshwater in agriculture is 70%, but in some countries, it is much worse.  In Ethiopia it is 90% and in Egypt and Iran it is almost 95%.

Climate change makes these statistics even more egregious. There is not enough rainfall to grow crops, so farmers must rely on irrigation.

He said that the water crisis is caused by the fact that the farmers of the world do not know how to grow food without wasting immense volumes of water. What is causing this? Traditional agriculture such as flood irrigation that you see when growing rice, uses 85% of the global water. The elephant in the room is that 60% of the water evaporates using this technique. A secondary form of irrigation is called center pivot, which Siegel said is why if you fly over farms in the United States, you will see large circles growing crops. Surprisingly, because we like to think of America as being so advanced, you lose 40% due to evaporation.

What is needed is to retrain farmers with Israeli water-efficient growing methods. Israeli farmers use “hyper water-efficient” agriculture. By using drip irrigation methods, the Israeli techniques we spoke of earlier, you can recycle the same drops of water multiple times. You also are only watering the plants roots when the plant is thirsty, and you lose nothing to evaporation. Finally, Israel uses recycled water! Israel is number one in the world, recycling and using nearly 90% of its wastewater.4

Siegel pointed out that “since you’re losing 50%-60% from normal irrigation, you are now saving at least enough to grow 100% more food.”

Plant Breeding

Shapiro outlined how as young scientists, they would walk the corn fields and make their annotations to make decisions. Later, when the first DNA sequencer was invented, it was the size of a school bus. Today, his DNA sequencer fits in his hand. He places the DNA into the wells of his sequencer, closes it up, plugs it into the USB port of his computer, and overnight his computer does the incredible work and by morning he can sequence the DNA of his plant specimen.

A plant needs lots of water and fertilizer, but we only really care about the parts of the plant we eat. Using plant breeding (not genetically modified food), Israel has determined how to make a more “efficient” plant. For instance, they have managed to grow tomato plants with noticeably short roots and those that have few leaves. They also developed a wheat plant with a truly short stalk. Siegel asks, “Why waste water on a part of the plant you can’t eat or use? By concentrating on watering the parts of the plants that are used, wasteful water and fertilizer usage disappears.

Another technologically advanced system in agriculture that they will be using in collaboration with the JNF Joint Institute for Global Food, Water, and Energy Security, is agrivoltaics (remember what it means?) which they have been working on at Biosphere 2 for two years. It utilizes growing plants under solar panels producing electricity in the shade. They have taken their collaborative efforts as humans and applied the teamwork to the technology of agriculture, water conservation and energy working together in the same field. There are three profound advantages:

  1. What you can grow in the shade allows different kinds and timing of food production.
  2. The evapotranspiration on the solar panels makes the solar panels more efficient because the water cools them so you can produce more electricity.
  3. The humidity in the soil is maintained for a much longer time when the sun is not beating on it, so the amount of water required is much less.

In the Arava, they have received what Biosphere 2 calls Agrivoltaics 3.1 and they are anxiously awaiting the creative solutions that they will develop for agriculture, water management and energy. There were many other innovative ideas discussed―suffice to say they have much work to do and the world will ultimately be better for it.

Speaking of, as Israel becomes more well-known for their expertise in these vital fields, hopefully there will be more room for hydro-diplomacy and ultimately more countries will be incented to collaborate and negotiate cooperative contracts. And ultimately where appropriate, Peace agreements.

TIME magazine included Israeli-water technology in the top 100 inventions of 2019. Watergen, just one Israeli company, has made its technology available to countries such as India, Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Uzbekistan, and South Africa. Israel ran Iran’s water system from 1962-1979. Even in California, Israel has been helping with our drought problems for years.7

And water is a serious issue that can lead to severe conflict. Bhekisisa, the Centre for Health Journalism and social justice issues across Africa predicted that Iraq, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan are likely to go to war because of water issues.8

So, congratulations to Israel for their innovative technological advancements, and aren’t we all grateful for JNF’s support of Israel?

May you live in Peace, שלום, سلام,

I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

Penny S. Tee



1 “Photovoltaic,” Wikipedia,

2 By John P. Rafferty, “Biodiversity Loss,” Brittanica,

3 By Audrey Azoulay, The Foreward of “The United Nations World Water Development Report 2020,”

4 By Fluence News Team, “Israel Leads World in Water Recycling,” Fluence, July 20, 2020,

5 “Soil Erosion and Degradation Overview,”

6 by Hannah Ritchie, “Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Our World in Data, November 06, 2019,

7  “TIME magazine includes Israeli-water technology in top 100 inventions of 2019,” Jewish News Syndicate, November 21, 2019,

8 Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “These six countries are likely to go to war for water in 2020,” Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, January 14, 2020,


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