The Canadian Jewish News - Agricultural Research Flourishes At Hebrew U

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Canadian Jewish News headerAgricultural research flourishes at Hebrew U

From the editor's deskSecond of a series.

“Our mission is service to the Jewish people and service to the world,” Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson recently told The CJN. Over the course of a week, The CJN observed how certain members of the university’s staff dedicate their work and themselves to the fulfilment of the president’s mission.

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Some 41 kilometers north and west of Jerusalem, in the lushly verdant town of Rehovot, rich with fruits and flowers of all kind and a multicolored human tapestry from all parts of the globe, is the university’s faculty of agriculture. Its formal name is The Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. 

The dean of the faculty, Aharon (Ronnie) Friedman is a gregarious, teddy bear of a man, who greets his visitors with a warm smile and a generous handshake. 

He spoke to us earnestly and almost emotionally about the faculty of agriculture and its mission. 

Like the university itself, the faculty is older than the state of which it is part. It opened in 1942 with 21 students. Today there are approximately 2,200 students. The teaching and research at the faculty stream into four distinct yet clearly related scientific areas: animal, plant, environmental and nutrigenomic sciences.

“We have a firm commitment to feeding the world and alleviating world hunger. Whatever we can do is significant,” Friedman said.

And there can be no doubt that the faculty’s scientists are doing a great deal. They are at the front in virtually every known agricultural and agronomic  battle, Friedman elaborated.

“We have a group of scientists who work on an interdisciplinary basis” to try to solve major problems related to fostering sustainable (safe and efficient) agriculture while protecting, enhancing or rehabilitating the environment.

We met with two scientists who exemplarize this interdisciplinary approach from the starting point of environmental sciences.

Prof. Benny Chefetz is a leading international expert on recapturing, recycling and reusing waste water for the safe use in our agricultural systems. In former times, Chefetz said, the main contaminant in the water that went back to the field was pesticides. Today, they are the spent pharmaceuticals that are transferred into the water systems.

Prof. Yitzhak Hadar is known internationally for his leading work on recycling, re-using and finding some benefit from the large masses of waste that are the unused portion of the crops that grow in the field.

“We must try to find useful purposes for the byproducts of the vegetables that we grow,” Hadar explains.

One of Hadar’s current projects, in collaboration with scientists from Italy and Tunisia, is to seek out the potential benefits in the waste that results in the production of olive oil.

Given the ever increasing popularity of olive oil and the scale of the oil producing industry, especially throughout the Mediterranean basin, Hadar’s findings may one day have far-reaching significance.

Friedman told us of another faculty member, Prof. Bertha Sivan-Levavi, who was spearheading a vital project in east central Africa to restore and reclaim Lake Victoria as a source of food for the surrounding villagers whose children had over the years become severly malnourished due to the virtual disappearance of stocks of edible fish from the lake.

Three days after our conversation with Friedman, a story about Sivan-Levavi appeared in Ha’aretz. The headline read: “Israeli prof. helps solve food crisis spawned by Nile perch.”

The sub-headline in the story was: “Fish pond culture relocates from Emek Hefer to Ugandan communities on shores of Lake Victoria.”
Apparently, Sivan-Levavi persuaded the Lake Victoria communities to establish fish ponds (such as at Emek Hefer in Israel) to raise carp. The introduction of the carp was instrumental in saving the children.

Friedman assured us, with the excitement of a proud father, that there were many more such stories of faculty members finding ways to feed the world. 

As a further example, to combat the horrific morbidity and mortality rates among infants and young children in certain sectors of East Africa, Prof. Shahal Abbo, introduced a high nutrition, simple-to-store chickpea (humus, in Israeli parlance) for local cultivation by the farmers there. That simple chickpea will significantly enhance the wellbeing and health of all the children in the area.

For the scientists at the Hebrew University’s faculty of agriculture, feeding the world’s hungry is no mere slogan. It is an imperative call to duty.

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To commemorate the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, The CJN was recently invited by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University to travel to Jerusalem, visit the university, meet and engage with some of its scholars, researchers and teachers.

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