A Million Dunams to China?

Israel China
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Miriam Alster/Flash90

Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture has proposed setting aside up to a million dunams of land in the Negev (250,000 acres) for growing crops for sale to China, according to Globes on Monday.

The plan, being promoted by Minister Uri Ariel and director general Shlomo Ben Eliyahu, emerged from talks held by the latter in Beijing with his counterparts two weeks ago.

Dubbed by Ben Eliyahu “the million dunam project,” the unirrigated land will be allocated mainly in the Negev and the Arava.

Also on offer is Israeli agricultural know-how and technology, similar to a deal under way with Russia.

However, the tracts under discussion are not standing unused. Currently, they are allocated for growing grass for animal feed and produce silage, including lucerne. Accordingly, there is reportedly a concern within the industry that such a deal with China would harm domestic agriculture and possibly drive up the prices of dairy products.

In addition, while the arrangement would serve the interest of China’s food security, it might threaten Israel’s own food security.

A significant portion of the land in question – about 100,000 dunams – is used to grow wheat. Giving the area over to China would deprive Israel of its own capacity, it is being argued.

The ministry dismissed the concerns in a statement:

“The facts are that no problem of food security of fresh produce – fruits and vegetables – exists. Israeli farmers supply all of Israel’s consumption of fruits and vegetables, other than isolated cases. On the contrary; there is a surplus of fresh agricultural produce – fruits and vegetables marketed for export. One third of the agricultural land is used to grow produce that is not designed to maintain food security.

“The transaction in question is like any sale of fresh agricultural produce for export. The difference between this deal and similar deals in the sector is that it is a long-term deal aimed at providing agricultural certainty. Any exporter in any sector would be glad to make such a deal.”

The ministry also sought to correct any misperception that Israel is about to sell land to China.

“The deal does not involve land; it is a sale of agricultural produce. The Israel Land Authority director general participated in the discussions in China, following the discussions that took place in the Eran Nitzan committee, which debated leasing the land on which the farmers grow their produce for a long period, rather than the short period in the current practice.”

Regarding a charge that the plan would entail a major change in land use contracts, and would sacrifice flexibility, the statement said:

“Today, the contract for the land is valid for three years, and must be renewed every three years in order to meet the obligations undertaken in a long-term deal. It therefore follows that the land will be worked by Israeli farmers, not Chinese farmers.”