Palestinian life is filled with cultural references that tie Palestinians to their “naturalenvironment.” The olive tree has become a symbol of Palestinian steadfastness, andhardly a day passes in Palestine without a reference to the land, sea, and air thatPalestinians have been denied. Despite the patriotic slogans, however, speaking aboutthe environment and climate challenges is considered to be a luxury in manyPalestinian communities. Decades-long occupation has clouded most of the discourse,with many Palestinians considering any other conversation to be secondary or “lessimportant” at best, and “imported” or “Western,” at worst.
This understanding of the environment is extremely problematic, mainly because itignores the importance of environmental and resource sustainability to Palestinianliberation from occupation, dependency, and underdevelopment. While Palestine’scontribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is minuscule, the impact of climatechange in Palestine is expected to be severe. In Palestine and the region, thecombination of rising temperatures and decreased rainfall is expected to dramaticallyincrease demand for water, which is an already scarce resource, inflicting significantharm in agricultural production capacity. Combined with the impact of Israelirestrictions and settlement expansion on the water resources and land area availablefor agriculture, climate challenges are expected to have catastrophic implications forfood security in Palestine. For this reason, efforts that focus on improving food securityand sustainability in Palestine and the region are likely to intensify.
Despite the absence of a clear and systematic approach to addressing environmentaland climate challenges at the national level, a number of renewable energy, watertreatment, and waste management projects have been developed with support fromthe Palestinian government and international donor organizations that today form theseed for environmental transformation. The development of these projects has mainlybeen driven by the need to ensure the sustainability of vital resources such as energyand water at an affordable cost. To build on existing efforts, more actors need to payattention to resource sustainability in the agriculture sector.
Out of over 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, around a third (1.7million, mostly in Gaza) are food insecure, and a further 16.8 percent (841,000) aremarginally food secure.*1 Food insecurity is only expected to increase due to populationgrowth, increasing international commodity prices, and Israeli restrictions on trade(and associated costs), in addition to the reduced capacity for food production due toshrinking land area and water reserves.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza import most of their food, while their ability toproduce their food on their land is increasingly constrained. To ensure food security,Palestinians have little choice but to adopt technologies and practices that can radicallyimprove conservation of soil quality, water resources, and other agricultural inputs.This could enable the sector to grow sustainably to serve a growing population despitethe challenges. Adopting more advanced technologies and cultivation methods such ashydroponic farming, vertical farming, and fully controlled and monitoredenvironments (greenhouses), can help farmers produce three to six times the amountof produce, with significantly reduced water use and minimal levels of harmfulchemicals. Hydroponic cultivation, for example, can save up to 95 percent of the neededwater for growing greens and a range of vegetables, including widely consumed, water-intensive crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
Plastic bags placed on arcuate faqqous grown in the town of Deir Ballout in the Salfit governorate. Photo by Daoud Abdallah, Palestinian Assembly for Photography and Exploration.
Despite the great potential of agricultural technology in the Palestinian context, thereare several challenges that impede its development. Advanced agriculture is capitalintensive and requires tight operational management and specialized expertise, whichis often lacking in the local market. The availability of risk capital to invest inagricultural technology development can significantly expedite the pace of transition.
Many Palestinians in the West Bank remember the images of cucumbers beingdisposed of in empty agricultural areas in Tulkarem during 2020. The dissemination ofthe images on social media channels triggered a public conversation. Farmers reportedtheir inability to sell their produce as storage costs mounted, leading them to dispose ofthe produce.
Difficulty in selling produce is a major challenge for farmers in Palestine andworldwide. Farmers often lack access to the networks, knowledge, or time to ensurethat their produce reaches customers. Marketing and sales require time and access tonetworks of resellers, wholesalers, and in some cases consumers directly. Whenfarmers cannot access a feasible sales channel, they dump their produce to avoid costlystorage. In addition, the fluctuation in agricultural production, which is mainly causedby seasonality and the inability of markets to allocate produce rapidly and at asatisfactory price for both the farmer and the consumer.
Dumping of agricultural produce in Tulkarem, Palestine, 2021. Photo courtesy of Ultra Palestine
In our region, where the movement of people, products, and capital is restricted bylayers of politics and bureaucracy, shortening supply chains could contribute toimproved food security and the development of local productive industries, whileplaying a part in the region’s adaptive response to climate change. To allow for thisgradual transition towards shorter supply chains, actors should pay more attention toimproved efficiency and planning of the cultivation process to improve themanagement of supply quantities to match the less fluctuating demand.
Planning can be further improved through the adoption of advanced cultivationtechnologies. One advantage of controlled cultivation systems is that they enablefarmers to grow crops during most of the year with shorter cultivation cycles. Thisallows farmers the flexibility to adjust their cultivation strategy throughout the year tosmooth fluctuations in demand and supply.
Sector stakeholders should also focus on innovative solutions to boost farmers’ accessto local markets and reduce the number and control of intermediaries in the supplychain. With improved public access to the digital world, new tools could be leveraged tobetter link farmers to traders and even to the end users directly, circumventingtraditional open markets where producers have to compete with local representativesof much larger Israeli producers. In addition, using controlled cultivation systems couldhelp farmers produce much higher yields on smaller plots of land, with reduced needfor agricultural inputs such as soil, fertilizers, and pesticide. This enables farmers to setup farms closer to the urban markets which they serve.
Importing agricultural inputs remains a significant cost for the Palestinian economy.In 2019, animal feed was Palestine’s third-largest import in terms of value, with aroundUS$204.6 million (9.6 percent of total import bill and 1.3 percent of GDP in 2019) spent onimported preparations used in animal feed. In addition, conversations with localproducers of animal feed indicate that most of the inputs used in local production ofanimal feed are also imported from or through Israel. In the same year, the value ofimported fertilizers reached US$9 million. Although this amount is much smaller whencompared to animal feed imports, the official figures are likely to be skewed due to theinformality of fertilizer purchases from Israel. Israel currently bans standardconcentration fertilizers typically used for intensive agriculture; this continues to be amajor impediment to the sector’s development and drives farmers to avoid reportingpurchases of fertilizers outlawed by Israel.
Municipal solid waste statistics in Palestine, 2019. Photo courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
The increase in input prices is one of the main issues that face the agricultural sectorin Palestine and is sometimes the main reason behind the losses incurred by farmers.Farmers report increases in input prices over the previous years with an averageannual growth of 10 percent. The reasons behind the increase include the fluctuation ofthe dollar exchange rate against the Israeli shekel and increases in petrol prices. Inaddition, trading in pesticides and fertilizers is limited to a number of trade agenciesthat import heavily from Israel and control final prices for Palestinian users.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza generate a significant amount of organicwaste; around 50 percent of the 1.58 million tons of daily municipal solid waste in theWest Bank and Gaza is considered organic waste (790,000 tons). Organic waste fromboth households and the agricultural sector can be an important input to produce someof the most essential products needed to establish a sustainable agriculture sector, suchas animal feed and fertilizers.
Developing fertilizers and animal feed products from locally sourced organic waste canunlock a structural challenge for the development of Palestinian food security. Relyingon by-product from local industries, resource-dependency on the Israeli market couldbe challenged while also growing local businesses and creating jobs for Palestinians.The local production of agricultural inputs can also significantly contribute to theshortening of supply chains, which result in savings in time and money required fromfarmers and a reduction in the carbon footprint associated with transporting produce.
To develop new agricultural inputs locally, a number of efforts need to be coordinatedamong key sector actors. Seed capital is needed to conduct research and test differentcombinations of inputs in order to identify products that are at least equivalent toimported options, in terms of price, quality, and nutritional value. To ensure feasibilityand scalability, large local actors such as private-sector dairy producers, largeragribusinesses, and the government should be the first to adopt the new local products.
Examples provided in this article are not an exhaustive list of possible interventionsnor are they a silver bullet that promises to solve all of Palestine’s problems. We believe,however, that by investing in resource sustainability, especially relating to foodsecurity, actors will ultimately strengthen the resilience of Palestinians living on theirland and provide them with more agency over their own well-being and development.
The road to change is not going to be easy. The transition will require large amounts ofcapital, specialized expertise, innovative business models, and most importantly, thewill and determination of the various actors in the agricultural sector.
To start addressing the challenges cited above and other social and economicchallenges in Palestine and the region, we propose a scientific approach, anchored incontinuous testing and validation to ensure its fit to the local context. We must striveto understand the problem by researching pressing environmental challenges andmeasuring their impact on Palestinian society and economy. Sizing the magnitude ofthe problem and identifying the key affected actors are critical first steps to engagingpolicy makers and the private sector in efforts to respond quickly and effectively toclimate challenges. Efforts must be made to identify potential solutions throughstudying international similar experiences and drawing lessons from similar contexts.Pilot projects must be developed to test the compatibility of proposed solutions andcarefully situate them in the local context. And we must invest in scaling up successfulpilots to become sustainable impactful businesses.
Originally published in April 2021 issue of ‘This Week in Palestine‘ . Authored by Zayne Abudakka and Hammam Othman.