Israeli agricultural experts bring ‘sustainable experience’ to Myanmar


Sustainable agriculture - Israeli food at a marketplace. Photo: Mizzima

Last week two Israeli agricultural experts came to Myanmar to exchange views on agricultural practices that might be suitable for the country’s rural sector.

Professor Ayal Kimhi and Dr Avri Bar Zur, together with the Israeli Ambassador, held roundtable discussions with the public and private sector, including universities, and the Myanmar Minister of Agriculture.

They talked with experts from the Central Economic and Social Development Research Center (CESD). The aim was to bring Israeli experience at a practical level in macro economics, to see things that are relevant to Myanmar, to share and create dialogue, and to have an impact.

Professor Ayal Kimhi, the Sir Henry d'Avigdor Goldsmid Chair in Agricultural Economics at the Hebrew University, serves as Vice President and head of research at the “Shoresh Institution” for Socioeconomic Research.

Dr Avri Bar Zur is an agronomist who is working with international venture capital companies, startups and agricultural companies in combining strategic Ag projects and investments. He is also involved in the selection of strategic solutions to agricultural policy, extension, on-site agricultural projects, remote agricultural support and knowhow transfer to large farms and small holder farmers in rural communities in developing economies.

The professors visited from July 21–26.

Mizzima reporter Pan Pwint sat down with them to discuss Myanmar agriculture and what Israel has to offer.

Mizzima: What do you believe are the main challenges for Myanmar farmers?

Prof. Ayal Kimhi: There are many challenges. Based on the experience of other countries, the development of agriculture should start from the bottom up. For farmers, to go to the next phase of development, they need to have the right infrastructure and the right policy environment that would support such development efforts. When I mean infrastructure, I mean both physical infrastructure, administrative infrastructure and human infrastructure. Because it is very easy to talk about adopting new technology and new agricultural technology, but for farmers to adopt new agricultural technologies, they also have to adopt to new knowledge, and they have to understand how to use the technology properly, and they have to have the means to invest in technology. That is financial means, and they need to have markets. For markets, you need infrastructure, value chain, roads and information. So the development process as a whole is a very complex process, and there are many problems that need to be taken care of. I am personally not familiar enough with agriculture in Myanmar but what I said is true for every country. Through out our discussion earlier today, we understand that there is physical infrastructure and there is a problem with energy available for farmers. Moreover, I would also say that regarding the policy, I think the government should let the markets work but try to help the market work in the right direction other than going through a dictated process that has proved that it is not sustainable for the country.

Prof. Avri Bar Zur: Since we are talking about rural society, almost 60 % of the population live in rural area. Small scale farmers are very important to focus on joining an effort that will combine research extension and the farmers together to close the gap with very advanced technological and modern agricultural production worldwide especially to give the farmers the tools to increase productivity and profit. This will increase their income, and they will be self sustaining in the future.  The second goal can be, to extend the growing season to all year round for three seasons with modern technology.

Mizzima: Can you explain what is meant by bringing change from an economic and social economic standpoint to farmers both on large farms and for small farm holders?

Prof. Ayal Kimhi: I think small farmers and large farmers are a very different story. I think large farmers can work on their own. They normally have the means of development on their own, and the challenge for public policy is to try to pull up small farmers to compete in a globalized economic world. As I said,  some or most of the effort should be directed at recognizing what the bottlenecks are. I would like to add perhaps what I should have said earlier that development of any project throughout the world has been accompanied by the exit of farmers. Because when agriculture develops, there is no need for so many people in agriculture. So development has to worry about the next step, and the next step would be to have jobs for these people outside agriculture and prepare for some rural, urban migration,and all these should be done at the same time, I think because the exit from agriculture is occurring both as a push and pull factors. The push factors are that agriculture is doing very well and there is no need for so many workers, and the pull factors are that other industries are developing and they need labor. So these two processes feed each other. So even when we focus on trying to devise policy to develop small farmers, it is also necessary to think about the alternatives what to do about those farmers when they do not stay in agriculture. Will they have a solution?

Prof. Avri Bar Zur: I fully agree with Ayal but since I am in the agricultural arena, and involved in agricultural development, I think the situation prior to joining efforts of the government, farmers and businessmen, in order to help rural development, everything has to be gathered in the form of PPP collaboration (Public Private Partnership).That is what we are looking to.

Mizzima: Can you explain the successes or possibly challenges you have faced in bringing your ideas to other countries in the region? For example, Israel has a long history of engagement with Thailand's agricultural sector, initially encouraged by the late King Bhumibol who was keen to employ sustainable farming on royal Thai farming projects.

Prof. Ayal Kimhi: We use labor force from Thailand in our agriculture, but that is not a two way collaboration. Israel has been associated with trying to assist other countries development processes throughout history. Israel’s knowledge used in many other countries, expertise, technologies were exported to many countries. The challenge is, of course, Israel is a unique country regarding climate, population, challenges and geo-political situation. So the challenge is to adopt Israeli experiences so that it fits other countries. For this, you need some kind of partnership. I mean it is not a one way situation. It needs to be some kind of collaboration where local people and Israeli people work together.

Prof. Avri bar Zur: I think we all have to focus on what are the needs for Myanmar farmers and Myanmar economy. We have to focus on what we can bring to Myanmar’s rural development and work on it together.

Mizzima: One option provided by Israeli farming techniques appears particularly applicable - dry zone farming. Israel has done wonders in developing farming in relatively dry or extremely dry regions. What are your thoughts for Myanmar?

Prof. Ayal: I am not so familiar with the situation in Myanmar, but Israel is a world leader in developing technologies for that purpose. I’ve mentioned before that it is not sufficient to bring the technology in, it has to be surrounded by the necessary environment that will enable the technology to be fruitful including human resources, the extension that needs to be done, professional support and market structure that is necessary to take advantage of this technology, not just bring more water and using it more efficiently. That is very important because technology is costly and it is not free.

Prof. Avri:As I said before, the whole goal should be a proportion between the research extension and the farmers. I want to say something about the technology. When you say dry zones, you are speaking about Bagan and Magwe; these areas are in the west. We visited Bago and visited some farmers and fields; we saw that the main growing season is monsoon season where you have water available. When we landed yesterday, we saw a field flooded with water. However, during the rest of the year, there is a dry season even in Bago and other regions including Shan State, and Mandalay. The effort should be to try to extend the growing season, to bring the technology and the know-how to the farmers so they can grow additional crops beyond and before the monsoon season.

Israeli Ambassador: As you can see, it is not always the same view and the same idea, it is not always the view of the government of Israel. It is not that we have something against it, but just the idea to have an open discussion about the possibilities, bring experiences from other places.

Mizzima: Can you explain to our readers how you view sustainable agricultural. The so-called Green Revolution, first introduced in the middle of the last century in the West, has proved in many cases to be particularly destructive - given the overuse of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and the heavy reliance on GMOs. How would you describe the Israeli approach?

Prof. Ayal:I think the meaning of sustainable agricultural is trying to develop agriculture and leave sufficient resources for the next generations to preserve the environment and not to over exploit natural resources. I would say the advantages of a country like Myanmar which is developing relatively late is it can use the experience of other countries, and sometimes countries recognize sustainable development when it is too late and the the environment is already polluted, and natural resources are over exploited. Myanmar in that sense is in a good situation where it could think in advance and try to avoid going in that direction.

Prof. Avri: This is exactly the right timing because the whole world, the rest of the world is moving toward sustainable agriculture. This means it is possible to implement today more environment friendly technologies in terms of cultivation of the soil, using insecticide and pesticide to prevent damage. This is the right time to do it. If you asked me ten years or fifteen years ago about sustainable agricultural, it would have been very difficult to answer the question because farmers, the small holder farmers have to make whatever they can in order to provide proper income for families. It is a lot easier today and we can use the right technology.

Mizzima: How did the Israeli approach develop? Is this a legacy of the early work on the kibbutz communal farms back in the 1950s and 60s? What were the challenges for Israel back then?

Prof. Ayal:Israel’s experience was very different from other countries because the development of Israeli agricultural started with migrants who came mostly from Eastern Europe and they were educated and were ideologically motivated toward agricultural development. They established Kibbutz and all these wonderful organizations that were the tools for agricultural development. And also one other thing that people tend to forget is that Israel at the early stage of development received huge inflows of money from abroad and government rightfully put a lot of investment in agricultural infrastructure. This combination of Human capital and physical capital was very important for the development of agriculture. It is very different from most countries where you start with subsistence level family farming, and you have to start from scratch. Some of the ingredients of this success can be adopted in the situation of other countries and implemented in their own way.

Prof. Avri: I can only add, what you have right now is the need. The western world is very developed in technology and you are doing the first step and there is a need to do something to improve the standard of the world community. It is not a copy paste from what we have been doing during 60-70 years ago in Israel. We have to see what can be done today.

Israeli Ambassador: Another thing is the lack of natural resources in Israel. We had to develop the economy based on the high level of knowledge from expertise. We could not have created commodities or find oil in our land. So it is mostly knowledge based economy in agriculture and other things.

Mizzima: Can you explain how you can engage the private sector and develop start-ups, as well as bringing in possible Israeli company investment and partnership?

Israeli Ambassador: I believe a few Israeli business people introduced some products into this market maybe irrigation. I know some Israeli companies are examining the possibilities here. There are many options, in many countries, so people go to places that their money and their experience can bring better results.

Prof. Ayal: Many private companies from Israel are looking for investment overseas, and investors are looking for the best area to put their money and that depends on the business environment.

Mizzima: What would you say are your next steps?

Prof. Ayal: This time is more an exploratory visit, for me it is the first time and Prof. Avri the sixth time. This is an ongoing process and it will take quite sometime. I hope we will be able to continue improving the usage and management of water.

Mizzima: So this is your sixth visit, do you see any improvement in Myanmar agriculture?

Prof. Avri: I would say what I see is farmers and people working in government institutes are open to future collaboration. They are still using traditional ways of cultivation, extension and research, and there is a need for some support from the government to give incentives for research, government service to farmers and micro financing, etc. In order to bring those sources together to develop the farming community. Farmers are open and they are looking for know-how.

Mizzima: Is there anything you would like to add?

Prof. Avri: If I may add, I am not a businessman but I am working with businessmen and public organizations. Investors and businessmen are looking at Myanmar as a good future option for agricultural development. They need some incentive or support from the local government which will bring local investors to believe in developing agricultural and economy in Myanmar. If all the participants in this whole story join hands together there is a bright future for the agricultural development in Myanmar.

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