As climate change hits world crops, Israel’s stocks are based on war breaking out and governed by the policy: In God we trust
Ruth Schuster | Jul. 11, 2019

As extreme weather lashes the world and average temperatures rise, the world’s food security is in acute danger — and not by the year 2100. Just this week, the United Nations warned that climate crisis disasters are happening at the rate of one a week. The signs of danger already abound, including in Israel, where drought has been constraining crops for years. Yet the national emergency food reserves suffice only for weeks, to three months at the most. Israel can and should prepare stocks to last it a year, experts say — enough to see the nation through a “bad season” in global agriculture. It is no longer an unthinkable scenario that China, India and the United States all experience extreme weather and crop failures in a given year. That would drastically affect Israel, which imports 90 percent of its grains and legumes, and is therefore totally dependent on their availability, and affordability, in the breadbasket nations.

Israel’s policy on maintaining emergency stocks of grains, for humans and livestock alike, is the fief of the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry, which categorically refuses to provide any information on the topic. Stocks manager Haim Adjani at the ministry referred Haaretz to “Rachel,” an acronym (in Hebrew) for Israel’s National Emergency Authority. Rachel sent Haaretz back to the ministry. Nothing doing, but at least Adjani wished Haaretz “a nice day.”

Public domain discussions show Israel’s food stocks are based on scenarios of war, not weather. Wars in the region are relatively short, sharp affairs, but the weather is becoming a permanent concern.

A huge number of factors influence climate, but in recent years temperature rise has become a dominant outcome of almost all the scenarios. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to stop immediately, the global average temperature will continue to rise because temperatures are correlated to atmospheric carbon dioxide at a lag.

The chart below shows temperature and carbon dioxide over the last 450,000 years: The red represents atmospheric CO2; the blue represents temperature. Spikes in CO2 are accompanied by proportional spikes in temperature. But now, atmospheric CO2 has soared into uncharted territory, to over 415 parts per million for the first time in human history. And if temperatures climb in the same pattern — we’re cooked.

The late English climatologist Prof. Hubert Lamb noted that, starting in the 1950s, the weather has become more extreme and more unpredictable worldwide. In fact, the main problem for farmers isn’t the slow creep of global warming. It is weather extremes, such as drought, flood, frost or withering heat.

The world crop is of great concern to Israel, which has ever-less rain, ever-more people — and imports about 90 percent of its grains and legumes.

Precise forecasts are impossible. The planet has entered uncharted territory. It is impossible to nail down when exactly Miami will be under water, Greenland will turn green, or when global crop production will spectacularly fail.

It is clear, however, that the nations of the world are not preparing to cope with threats to food security. Only one country is taking adequate precautionary steps to mitigate mass starvation in the event of crop failures, says Prof. Hendrik Bruins, food security expert at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva. Spoiler alert: It isn’t Israel.

What is Israel’s policy for emergency food stocks? “In God we trust,” observes Shalom Hatuka, CEO of Shintraco, one of Israel’s biggest grain import companies, which works in coordination with the Agriculture Ministry. “It isn’t the right consideration. We should constantly be considering how to weather bad times.”

Malthus vindicated

Food insecurity has been a worry since 1798, when Thomas Malthus predicted future shortages because population growth would outstrip food production. His theory has been derided ever since — not least because he had failed to predict that technology would boost food output.

But Malthus may have the last laugh. The world population continues to grow, albeit perhaps more slowly, and scientists warn that climate change may already be impacting global food production.

May already be impacting? Don’t we know for sure? Yes and no. Models aiming to predict gargantuan phenomena such as weather, climate or even global maize or cat food production are by nature going to be rough; the systems involved are enormously complex.

Yet clearly, shit is happening. In mid-June, Greenland temperatures were 40 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. Pictures of sled-pulling huskies sloshing through meltwater drive home the point. India would love to get some of that meltwater to alleviate the drought wracking the subcontinent, its worst in almost 50 years. Flooding in Midwest America has disrupted soybean and corn planting, which is likely to spur price spikes.

Unpredictable weather extremes impact food production unpredictably. Nations that rely on food imports must prepare. Which nations are those? Almost all, including Israel.

Not many countries consistently grow significantly more grain than they need: Only the United States, France, Argentina, Australia and Canada — and all are feeling climate change and vicious vagaries of weather.

Here, the winter of 2018-2019 was rainy for the first time in a decade — in Israel’s north. The south and Negev remained dry as a bone. “This year’s wheat crop in Israel won’t cover even one month of consumption,” Hatuka tells Haaretz.

Israel’s Agriculture Ministry confirmed that the country imports 90 percent of its wheat consumption but wouldn’t get into specifics on other crops, let alone on amounts kept in reserve. That’s all confidential, it said. But even Israel’s animals eat imported food, including the cows that produce our milk.

“Israel has little green pasture and milk is usually produced in management systems of so-called zero grazing,” says Bruins. The livestock, including sheep and goats, eat mainly imported cereal grains.

So while Israel imports about a million tons of wheat a year for human consumption (flour), it imports 2 million tons for animal consumption, the importer Hatuka explains. The amounts of imports are governed by the Agriculture Ministry, depending on local yields and international prices.

Israel imports grains mainly from Russia, the United States, Hungary, Germany, Canada and Romania, the FAS said; Hatuka adds that Ukraine is also a key source.

Apropos of which, while Israel’s Agriculture Ministry is tight-lipped about specific numbers, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service is not.

In March, it forecast that Israel will grow 75,000 tons of wheat in the 12 months to June 2020, and will import 1.7 million tons (most of that for animal feed). That’s 5.5 percent more than in the previous year.

Note that three years ago, Israeli farmers grew more than twice that much — 170,000 tons of wheat — but unfortunately it was a shmitta year, Hatuka says. In other words, adherents to the Jewish faith couldn’t eat that wheat and it was sold to, let’s call them non-Jewish consumers. Some did go into the stocks.

As for this year, the FAS noted that Palestinians burning Israeli fields near Gaza caused not a few farmers to harvest prematurely and use the unripe wheat for animal feed, which will reduce yields even more.

Israel barely grows any corn: The FAS predicts that Israel will import 1.6 million metric tons of corn from October 2019 to September 2020. About an eighth will originate in the United States, with the rest coming from Ukraine, Argentina and Brazil. We already noted that the American corn crop may be in trouble this year.

Regarding barley: The FAS predicts Israeli production of just 15,000 tons in October 2019-September 2020. It will need to import about 350,000 tons. Stocks are at about 35,000 tons, says the FAS, though private companies may have some tucked away.

Israel also imports its oilseeds, the FAS adds.

As for emergency stocks, their level fluctuates in keeping with local yields, the FAS says, but the gist is clear.

Israel is “almost self-sufficient” in milk, poultry (both of which depend on imported grains), and certain fruits and vegetables, the FAS says. But it won’t increase cultivation of core crops. Why? Because farmers aren’t financially suicidal.

“Farmers prefer to use their land and water resources for cash crops and for crops with low water demands. This will not change in the near future, and Israel will continue relying on grain and feed imports,” the FAS sums up.

In a changing world, that augurs ill for Israel’s future food security.

The Agriculture Ministry refuses to disclose information on wheat stocks, but the FAS has no such constraints. Hatuka confirms the FAS’ information that stocks are usually highest in summer, just after the harvest.

But Hatuka snorts at the FAS data that Israel’s summer wheat stock (for humans) is about two months. He estimates present such wheat emergency stocks at 130,000 to 140,000 tons, while Israelis consume 1.1 million tons of wheat a year. In other words, the stock is barely enough for a month and a week (“If one doesn’t eat much,” Hatuka observes). The stocks could drop toward September, he says.

Israel has two companies that import grain for human and animal consumption, including Hatuka’s Shintraco, and three more that import for animal consumption. There are other importers, but they are not bound by contracts with the state to maintain, let alone hand over, their reserves in time of need, he adds.

A source knowledgable about Agriculture Ministry policy says it hasn’t changed in many years and, based on it, wheat reserves for human consumption fluctuate between two and three months: “That is an excellent situation,” the source said.

Emergency stocks of feedstuffs for animals would meet demand for about two weeks, the FAS writes. The source says the number is closer to three to four weeks and the ministry begged the government to increase budgets for more reserves, but to no avail.

Theoretically, couldn’t we all go gluten-free and resort to meat and dairy in a pinch? Not if the animals are dependent on imports too.

So, inquiring minds want to know: How much of a toll is climate change taking on world crops so far?

Winners and losers

If anything, so far climate change has boosted some yields in Latin America. Everywhere else, the impact is neutral to bad, the University of Minnesota reported in PLOS One last month. “There are winners and losers, and some countries that are already food insecure fare worse,” says lead author Deepak Ray, who did the study with researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Copenhagen.

The upshot is a 1 percent drop in global consumable food calories in 10 key crops: barley, cassava, maize, palm oil, rapeseed (the source of canola oil), rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane and wheat.

These 10 crops supply 83 percent of all cultivated calories and, in nearly half of all food-insecure countries, caloric availability fell, the scientists wrote. Global palm oil yields shrank by more than 13 percent, though on the upside the soybean yield increased by 3.5 percent, they wrote.

Meanwhile, the world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by the year 2050, says the UN.

Science can help bridge gaps, a little. Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization has been manipulating apricot trees through grafting, to improve their temperature resilience. But delicate fruit isn’t going to replace oilseed, wheat and oats. And even drought-resistant crops need some rain.

“People have known since the Neolithic that the vagaries of climate can damage agricultural crop production. I have found in my research that since agriculture began, food storage, particularly of grains and maybe pulses too, played a major role in every society,” Bruins tells Haaretz.

“They knew the future couldn’t be predicted — from locusts to bad weather or war.”

Indeed: A 7,200-year-old model of a grain silo found in Israel is a powerful indication of how important prehistoric people deemed food storage for their well-being and survival.

Biblical famine

“And there was no bread in all the land; for the famine was very sore, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine”: Genesis 47:13.

The biblical tale of Joseph and Egypt’s seven fat years and seven lean years may be historical or allegorical, but in either case it describes a recurring reality: The harvest fails and hunger strikes the land. So Joseph instituted a centralized food storage system, says Bruins.

Yet we reject Joseph’s wisdom. In the 1970s, the economic leadership in the United States suddenly decided that, thanks to modern trade, anybody can always buy food from somewhere. The upshot was worldwide policy change that all but eliminated dedicated food reserves, he explains.

Why on earth would the world heed that dangerous notion? “Apparently politics and fashion,” says Bruins. In the ’70s, around 70 percent of the world grain surplus was produced by the United States, which wanted to boost exports for political leverage and lucre. “Their message: We can produce grain more cheaply than you can; rely on us,” the professor says.

In the past, farmers saved seeds from one year’s crop for the next season and grew locally resilient plants. Nowadays, they all buy the same engineered seeds and instead of growing crops that adapted over millennia to local conditions, they are growing uniform crops that need fertilizers and pesticides.

Biodiversity is good, monocultures are bad. And if everybody uses a given company’s seeds, natural crop resistance diminishes.

After some 12,000 years of self-sufficiency, people face a totally new situation: There are about 10 or 15 major grain producers and more than 100 countries that have to import, including Israel.

There is no reason not to build up serious stocks. Dried grains and pulses can be stored for decades without spoiling, if one discourages rodents and mold. But why bother, shrugged the fair-weather economists.

“Unfortunately, this has become the basic policy worldwide. It is very, very dangerous,” Bruins warns.

China is the exception. Having experienced catastrophic food shortages before, it keeps large food stocks, though how large is a state secret. That is good; with a population that size, if it had spectacularly bad crop yields, it couldn’t possibly import enough food to feed all its people.

India also produces a lot of grains, but needs to use them all for its own population, Bruins explains. But note that the regional monsoon rains may sometimes fail badly, leading to catastrophic drought, or be excessive, leading to flooding.

What would happen if China and India both had a bad year at the same time, which is a likely scenario as climate change proceeds? To feed their people, they would snap up every available grain in the world markets.

“There’s only so much wheat, barley, rice and maize for sale in the world market,” Bruins remarks. Prices would soar. What would import-dependent nations like Israel do then?

Let them eat flowers

Why can’t Israel become self-sufficient in grains? Because, Bruins explains, farmers earn peanuts from wheat. The ones making money are retailers (a truism in much of the world). To drive self-sufficiency, farmers would have to earn a lot more and supermarkets a lot less, Bruins says. Good luck with that.

Cost is also an issue regarding Israel’s emergency stocks, which aren’t maintained by the government itself but by import companies that win Agriculture Ministry tenders. These contracts are typically for three years at a time, Hatuka explains.

Even if Israeli officials decided there ought to be a law and capitalist piggery is passé, the entire Middle East and Levant are experiencing accelerated climate change. The last rainy winter notwithstanding, Israel has been gripped by drought for much of the last decade.

Israel takes justifiable pride in its giant desalination plants. But putting aside any ecological damage they wreak, that is no solution if the rain stops — not least because rainwater is free and desalinated water is painfully expensive. So farmers would have to pay hand over fist to irrigate crops for which they’d get pennies. So much for making the Negev bloom.

Apropos of which, by price, the most profitable crop for Israel’s farmers is flowers.

What could we do? For one: Stop using the desalination output to shower and water crops, and start replenishing Israel’s depleted aquifers, Bruins advises: “Imagine another war; imagine we attack Iran and things get out of hand and missiles target the desalination plants. We need water reserves in the aquifers.”

Crucially, if we can’t reasonably grow a lot more basics, we can at least beef up the reserves for times of trouble. And they are coming.

“Farmers already can’t rely on weather patterns in comparison with the first half of the 20th century,” Bruins says.

It isn’t a question of another degree on average; it’s a question of weather extremes. In bad times, what grain the breadbaskets can grow, they’ll keep for themselves. And as fear and demand spike around the world, so will food prices. Never mind haggling over food: war could ensue.

“At least, if grains become scarce, farmers could charge more,” Bruins observes.

In a really bad year, if we can’t import food, the only thing that will save Israelis from starvation is the stocks.

Hatuka shrugs. “The world is very big,” he says, and feels sanguine that someone will be growing grain somewhere at any given time and Israel can import it. He does, however, think that Israel’s emergency stocks are woefully low in any case.

But he also notes that it’s not just about war anymore: “It’s a question of policy, and theoretically [bad things] could happen. … In 2008, the price of wheat shot up from $100-$200 a ton to $500. That could happen again,” the importer says. The price of rice, for instance, spiked from $163 in 2001 to $907 in 2008.

Bruins is not sanguine. Grain stocks for human and beast must be increased to suffice for perhaps a year, to enable Israel to weather at least one failed growing season in global terms, he urges. The longer we wait to do this, the more we will have to pay for grain and pulses — if we can get them at all. And we need to do this before the crisis hits.