Israel’s food security depends on the groundbreaking work done by the Volcani Institute in agriculture. The cuts to its budget show that Israel’s government prioritizes investing in the past, rather than the future
Nir Hasson. Mar 13, 2024

In 2017, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic visit to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his Indian counterpart straight from the airport to visit an agricultural farm, where he boasted of Israeli agriculture, and in particular the Volcani Institute, the largest and most important agricultural research institute in the country.

“I think it’s the most advanced agricultural research institute in the world. With humility, I’d say none is more advanced,” Netanyahu told his guest. “These people are doing remarkable things, and you can increase the productivity of crops, of irrigation, of soil, livestock with the kind of groundbreaking research that they’re doing.”

Netanyahu and 63 coalition MKs are due to pass a state budget on Wednesday that will leave Volcani on the verge of closure. The Institute is expected to see a 25% cut in its overall budget, and this has already led to hundreds of research projects being suspended.

The Institute is ranked among the leading government agricultural research centers in the world, and the cut in its budget is part of the government’s overall attack on science and culture.

The budget also includes cuts to funding for public libraries, higher education and the Israel Innovation Authority, which come on top of an intentional discrediting of the chief scientists of government ministries, and the cancellation of the Israel Prize by Education Minister Yoav Kisch.

The cuts at the Volcani Institute however are also a terrible mistake in terms of Israel’s handling of the threats posed by the climate crisis.

For obvious reasons, over the past few months the climate crisis has dropped out of the public focus. A glance at global temperature indices, however, shows that the threat is growing stronger. On Sunday, average sea surface temperatures across the globe hit 21.2 degrees Celsius – an all-time record. Last February was also the warmest on record, as was last winter. The forecasts for summer are alarming.

One of the almost certain consequences of this dramatic warming is damage to agricultural production around the world, rising food prices, collapse of supply chains and danger to food security for hundreds of millions worldwide.Open gallery view

The Volcani Institute.Credit: Head of agricultural research / The Volcani Institute

When it comes to food security, Israel is in a particularly sensitive situation. Not only does it import the vast majority of the food consumed by its residents, but a lot of it also comes from far away, and Israel is surrounded by hostile countries and non-state groups.

Climate and security threats create a vicious circle. The best illustration of this is provided by the Houthi rebels, who have been effectively shutting down the port of Eilat for months. The British merchant vessel MV Rubymar, which was carrying fertilizer and was sunk by the Houthis, is now lying on the Red Sea bed and poses a threat to marine ecosystems.

In such a situation, Israeli agriculture and agricultural research are not only important economic sectors, but an existential need. In the long term, the food security of Israel’s residents depends on the continued proper functioning of the Volcani Institute and its researchers. 

In a discussion held on Tuesday in the Knesset Science and Technology Committee, Volcani Acting Director Prof. Shmuel Assouline warned that the cuts would immediately freeze some 700 studies, violate agreements with companies and other countries, and destroy the reputation that the Institute has built for decades. According to Assouline, 38 patents that are in the process of being registered by the Institute will expire this month.Open gallery view

A field of wheat near Israel’s border with Gaza, last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Knesset Science and Technology Committee chairman MK Ayman Odeh (Hadash-Ta’al), said the budget was “the result of a short-term view taken by political opportunists who are willing to endanger the future of [Israel’s] citizens.”

Indeed, the budget proposal leaves the feeling that the government prefers to invest in the past rather than in the future. We can understand from it why Israel now has a Ministry of Heritage, a Ministry of Tradition, and an Authority for Jewish Identity – which, as of this week, will receive 25 million Shekel (almost $7 million) in the new budget.

When the working assumption is that the past is more important than the future, we can understand the logic in increasing budgets for Haredi Yeshiva schools, that teach medieval topics, instead of math and English; or in foregoing the tax on single-use plastic and sugar. The cost for the latter alone is 900 million shekel a year (roughly $247 million), ten times more than the cut to the Volcani institute. 

Perhaps the vote by Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition members for the budgets shows that they no longer believe in the future of the state of Israel.