Thousands of farmers blocked roads and junctions across Israel on Thursday in protest of reforms that would open the fruit, vegetable and egg markets to foreign import, a move they say will threaten their livelihoods.
The reforms were proposed last week by Finance Minister Avigdor Lןberman and Agriculture Minister Oded Forer.
The farmers arrived at junctions on tractors and other heavy equipment as early as 7 a.m., and threw eggs and produce on the roads in anger.
The reforms aim to recognize European standards on fruits and vegetables and create more competition in the industries, thus, in theory, lowering prices. This will be done gradually by lowering tariffs on fruit and vegetables.
Additionally, regulations on European fruits will be loosened, meaning there will be a bigger range of fruits available all year round.
The reform, however, also includes compensation in the form of a support package consisting, among other things, of direct financial support for each farmer per cultivated dunam. It also offers expanded tax benefits to encourage capital investment and an investment of over NIS 2 billion for raising productivity in the agriculture industry.
Avshalom Vilan, head of the Israeli Farmers Union, said: “Farmers from all over Israel went out to protest and say clearly: The prices in supermarkets are high not because of the farmers, who only receive a few shekels [per kilogram] for their produce, but because of the supermarket chains, who multiply the prices and make billions of shekels off of the backs of the farmers and consumers.
“The farmers have no control over fruit and vegetable prices or on the high cost of living” he continued. “This is cowardice on the part of the Finance and Agriculture ministers, who are afraid to challenge the retailers and supermarket chains, and therefore are bullying the farmers, who work in the fields in the heatwaves and the winter. The price mark-up is in the hundreds of percent, but apparently, they’re afraid of taking on the chain stores.”
Vilan added that “We’re out here to prove that Israel’s agriculture will not be shut down. We will not comply with a reform that will harm the country, the citizens, the farmers, and our collective physical and nutritional safety.”
Last week, when announcing the reforms, Lieberman said their purpose was to “strengthen the Israeli farmer while addressing the cost of living and benefit consumers.”
On Thursday, he said: “Throwing eggs, fruits and vegetables on the ground while blocking roads won’t benefit the consumers. I’m sorry that farmers choose not to focus on the most troubling question – why in the last 20 years fruit prices have increased by more than 100%, vegetables by more than 80%, while consumption has fallen by 20%, and why fruits in Scandinavia are cheaper than Haifa?”
Liberman added that the reform provides “unprecedented benefits” to farmers.
If it is adopted, the reform plan is expected to save Israelis around NIS 2.7 billion (around $823.6 million) a year, according to Liberman and Forer.