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March 31, 2016 4:34 pm

‘Agricultural Superpower’ Israel to Double Number of Centers of Excellence in India as Part of Flourishing Bilateral Ties (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Lea Speyer

Shimon Mercer-Wood. Photo: Twitter.

Shimon Mercer-Wood. Photo: Twitter.

Israel is being hailed as an “agricultural superpower” across India, a spokesperson for the Israeli Consulate in New York told The Algemeiner, as plans to open up new “Centers for Excellence” in India were announced this week by Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture.

Shimon Mercer-Wood, who is also a former political affairs officer at the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, made the comment in response to an interview given by Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel to The Hindu, in which he revealed Israel’s plan to more than double its agricultural Centers of Excellence in India. According to Ariel, Israel currently operates 13 such centers and, in the next few years, that number will increase to 28. In a visit to India next week, Ariel will inaugurate a new center in Haryana.

The announcement comes as both countries seek to bolster bilateral cooperation in the field of agriculture. Israel, with its innovative farming technology, has greatly influenced the agricultural sector in India, stated Mercer-Wood, adding that the Israeli drip irrigation method is a favorite of many Indian farmers. “If you go to the state of Haryana, an important agricultural state, and ask a farmer about Israel, they will say irrigation,” Mercer-Wood said. 

“The most impressive parts of the agricultural cooperation between Israel and India have been these networks of Centers of Excellence,” he explained. “What these are are demonstration farms where Israeli technology, know-how and expertise are deployed and Indian farmers are brought to learn Israeli techniques to apply in their own farms.”

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Over the last five-six years, the Centers of Excellence, according to Mercer-Wood, have been very successful and “opened up doors to many parts of India that are more interested in cooperating with Israel.” Israel’s recent decision to double the number of these demonstration farms signals that “the single greatest scale of agricultural cooperation Israel has” is with India.

The on-the-ground impact of the Israeli-run agricultural centers on the lives of many Indian farmers has been profound, he said. “The main goal of these farms is always to increase yield. The farmers manage to harvest more crops…fruits, vegetables and high valued crops.” 

Mercer-Wood recounted how Israel had set up a Center for Excellence in the field of growing mangoes. “This was quite chutzpadik and presumptuous,” he said, using the Yiddish term to describe the boldness of Israeli agriculturalists in telling Indian farmers how to grow mangoes, a national food treasure.

After studying typical Indian mango-farming techniques, “The center found Indian farmers were letting mango trees grow to great heights, and therefore the farmers couldn’t harvest the fruit at the top. The simple advice they gave the farmers was to crop the trees and let them grow in breadth instead.” The advice worked, he said, because in the end, “the farmers managed to get a lot more fruit.”  

However, he added, the Centers of Excellence go well beyond dispensing agricultural advice. “They are also about building relationships, acquiring trust. It’s not enough to tell farmers to cut their trees. They are traditional people and have been farming the same way for many many years,” he said. “Only after building the relationship will they take the advice and benefit greatly. One farmer put it very simply: ‘The tree is like my son. I can’t cut it.’ When those at the center managed to speak to him freely and get him to trust them, only then were they successful in updating the farming techniques.”

Mercer-Wood explained that Israel’s growing agricultural ties with India reveal a greater public shift in bilateral cooperation, and have serious political implications, as well. “The relationship between Israel and India has been growing tremendously and steadily for the past two decades. Since establishing diplomatic relations in the early 90s, cooperation in agriculture, defense, trade and more recently technological and scientific research and development, has grown in leaps and bounds,” he said.

“In the last two years, all these existing fields of cooperation have been enhanced, and in addition, the relationship has been given a much more salient public profile in the form of high-level visits, most notable the historic first visit of the president of the Republic of India to Israel late last year, as well as a more friendly posture in international forums such as the UN.”

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