The new plan being touted as a major reform that will lower retail prices and make the agricultural sector more efficient is being denounced by farmers and allied experts as likely to wipe out much of the country’s food-growing capacity, The Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday.
Agriculture Minister Oded Forer and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman have inserted their five-year-plan in the proposed new budget, which Forer called “the greatest reform that has been made in agriculture in the last 30 years.”
The plan promises to increase competition and lower the prices of fruits, vegetables and eggs through a gradual reduction in import tariffs. Israel will recognize European standards for fruits and vegetables, and regulation of produce imported from Europe will be reduced. The program follows OECD recommendations, and could save Israelis some NIS 2.7 billion a year, or NIS 840 per household, the ministers said.
But on Sunday, Israeli farmers were on their way to Yerushalayim to protest the plan, which they contend will not bring down prices but will bring down their livelihoods.
The issue threatens to upset coalition hopes for a smooth vote in the cabinet on Sunday to approve the proposed budget, and give the opposition ammunition for the upcoming battles of the budget.
Amit Ben-Tzur, founding director of the Yesodot Think Tank for Public Policy and Practical Zionism, told the Post that the ill-considered measure would cause widespread and irreparable damage to Israel’s agriculture, and pose serious food security risks for the country, as well.
“The government can’t pass a law like this as part of the Economic Arrangements Law, with just a few weeks of discussion,” Ben-Tzur said. “This issue is very complicated, with impact in so many areas. You have to sit and check all the data and possible scenarios. The plan that was put on the table is too simple, and they didn’t present any real numbers or scenarios.”
He asserted that, if implemented, it would lead Israeli farmers to completely stop growing many basic agricultural products in the next three years. “I’m not talking about tropical fruits, I’m talking about the basic foods that many of us eat every week. And we wouldn’t only lose the products themselves. We won’t have the excellent R&D or innovation that Israel has developed in this field either.”
And the damage done would be very hard to undo. “Once these capabilities are damaged, and the land is converted to residential or commercial real estate, it’s not coming back. If we make a mistake now, when there is a national crisis, it will be too late.”
“Israel is a small country with enemies all around us,” Ben-Tzur said. With the fastest population growth among developed countries—16 million people here by 2050—we will need a lot of food, and if just one country would decide to stop exporting to us, it could endanger our population. We can’t allow our agriculture sector to be broken.”
Avshalom (Avi) Vilan, head of the Israeli Farmers Union, which is organizing farmers’ protests around the country, argues that the Oded-Liberman plan does not address the cause of high prices.
“The farmers that receive a few shekels for produce are not the ones who set the prices in the supermarkets. It is the marketing chains that sell it for several times the price and earn billions of shekels on the backs of consumers and backers,” he said.
“The farmers have no influence on the price of fruits and vegetables, and no influence over the cost of living. We are here, standing at intersections all over the country, to show that it is not possible to close agriculture in the State of Israel.”
So far, Liberman, who has been dubbed “the prime minister of the economy,” has fully backed the program, but he may have to back down as criticism mounts and the overall state budget is at stake.