Old man sitting next to a pile of Israeli garlic in a market
Photo by Matan Choufan

In Two or Three Years, Israeli Garlic Could be Extinct

Researchers and farmers are warning that without immediate action, the bulbs will disappear.

By מתן שופן |

For the “Picnic on Mars” installation, we created an evolving pantry and asked visitors, chefs, and artists, and more to add one food item they would take to the place where nothing grows. Chef David Frenkel chose fresh Israeli garlic, an exceptionally aromatic garlic that arrives in the markets in the springtime. “Garlic has been part of my kitchen since my childhood. There was garlic in everything,” he says. “Garlic is also an inseparable part of the various kitchens that make up Israeli cuisine. To me, it’s a symbol of the here and now, of an understanding that we should favor local produce growing in our own land, and know how to consume it at its peak and preserve it for later use.” Sadly, experts and farmers believe that in two or three years, Israeli garlic may just be a memory.

Fresh Israeli Garlic. Photo by Matan Choufan

Before we start addressing the problem, let us understand what exactly we are talking about. We are not referring to wild garlic, which historian Uri Mayer-Chissick describes as the “father of all garlics;” it does grow in Israel, but it has very small bulbs, so only its stems and flowers can be used. So, what is Israeli garlic? Rina Kamenetsky, who researches garlic at The Agricultural Research Organization, Volcani Center, explains: “Until the 1980s, most of the garlic consumed in Israel was imported from Spain and other countries. Then, a group of researchers from the Volcani Center began searching for a variety that would be suitable for Israeli conditions. Finally, a South American variety — which will later be named Shani — was selected. Its only drawback was its short shelf life; it spoils after 4-5 months of storage. In addition, like all garlic varieties worldwide, it is very sensitive to viruses.”

And indeed, shortly after its acclimatization locally, the new Israeli garlic became affected by viruses. In the 1990s, researchers from the Volcani Center attempted to confront this problem with tissue cultures (a biotechnological method using a short piece of the plant to grow a new plant in sterile conditions). “We had a new, disease-free garlic industry,” says Kamenetsky. “It was booming for about a decade, and researchers even helped found a clean garlic farm in the southern Arava. It’s important to explain that virus-free garlic provides yields that are 50 percent higher, and the garlic itself is bigger, more attractive, healthier and has enhanced medicinal and nutritional values. We were certain that we would have Israeli garlic forever, the best garlic there is. But guess what? It was once again hit by viruses.”

Matan Choufan: And once again, biotechnology was used to solve the problem?

Rina Kamenetsky: No, the protocol used for cleaning the garlic back then was lost, and anyway, it was no longer relevant. Farmers came to us so that we could help them save the industry and renew the protocol. But this process takes time and effort, and these, as we know, cost money. The chief scientist [of Israel] does not want to subsidize the research, nor does the Ministry of Agriculture. What the state is telling us is, ‘what’s the problem?’ Import from China. It’s telling garlic farmers that they need to pay for this research.

And as we know, farmers in Israel are fighting for economic survival as it is. What will the implications be if no funding is found?

Five years ago, garlic yields started falling. I have been working on this project for about two years, which were all sponsored by the farmers, but the budget is almost exhausted. We need more resources to complete the research; otherwise, in 3-4 years time this industry will disappear. We will have no more Israeli garlic.

How much money are we talking about?

About 200,000 NIS [approx. $62,000] a year, and I estimate we need two more years of research.

What about importing other varieties to replace the Shani?

If we want to find alternative varieties, we need research expeditions that will look for them and develop them. I am in contact with some of my peers in Peru; the climate there is similar. They grow eight varieties of garlic, and we can try to raise them here in Israel. But we need permits, and we need money. It’s possible to grow new varieties, but we need funding.

Eitan Avivi, chairperson of the Israeli garlic farmers board in the Plant Council, is far less optimistic: “The yield quality is in constant decline, and growing garlic is no longer profitable,” he says sadly. “Preserving the qualities of a certain variety requires constant cultivation. You cannot simply stick to the base variety.”

Farmer Yaniv Eisenband of Eika Farm, a third-generation garlic farmer, says garlic is “a host for viruses.” In the past, he explains, the Ministry of Agriculture, together with other institutions, subsidized the use of tissue culture. “How do you grow garlic? You sow garlic cloves. By the following year, each clove will grow into a garlic head. Until a few years ago, we would get virus-free tissue culture, sow it, and renew it every couple of years, when the garlic started getting weaker. Today we are still using propagation material that underwent tissue culture for the last time five or six years ago. We have been growing the same heads for several years, and garlic is in decline. This means more disease, and a substantial decrease in yields.”

“The Die Is Cast”

Now, farmers must face another blow – the removal of tariffs on imported garlic from China. “If this reform takes place, we will not have a single plot of Israeli garlic by next year,” warns Avivi. Until now, Israel, like many other countries, imposed tariffs on agricultural imports, to keep the local industry competitive; but, last March, they dropped the tariffs on Chinese garlic.

“If this reform takes place, we will not have a single plot of Israeli garlic by next year”

Eitan Avivi, chairperson of the Israeli garlic farmers board

In its best years, there are about 1000 hectares of Israeli garlic, while the average is about 700. The annual consumption of garlic (both imported and local) is similar to other countries per capita, about 2 kg or 4 pounds per person or about 19,000 tons a year. It is considered a niche product, which perhaps explains why the state prefers to open the market to imported garlic, rather than invest in its cultivation, says Avivi. “Without minimal profitability, growing garlic in Israel will become impossible. We will be at the mercy of the Chinese.” Eisenband agrees: “The die is cast. The abolition of tariffs that protect Chinese garlic, and any other garlic that comes in, puts us in a situation where we will no longer be able to compete.”

“Without minimal profitability, growing garlic in Israel will become impossible”. Photo by Matan Choufan

But what’s wrong with Chinese garlic? It already makes up 50 percent of Israeli consumption. Well, it’s far inferior in quality to Israeli garlic, explains Kamenetsky, “but most important – we lose our independence. Perhaps we won’t be eating less garlic, but we will be dependent on others, and will get the surpluses of other countries. In Israel, they think it’s not that important; we have many other things to develop, I understand. But then again, it’s a pretty basic commodity. It livens up every dish, and it’s not just food – it’s a health product.”

Avivi and Eisenband’s thinking is similar. The Chinese are not committed to the same international regulations on fertilization, irrigation, and pesticides, they say. Adhering to those regulations, using local manpower and water, an expensive commodity locally, all contribute to Israeli garlic’s higher price tag by weight. And, “Chinese garlic looks great,” says Eisenband. “It’s robust, it has that million dollar look… but it’s a result of certain processes.”

In numbers, an Israeli garlic clove has four or five times the amount of allicin a Chinese clove. This affects both the quality of cooking and consumers’ health, as well as their pockets: So, even if Chinese garlic seems cheaper, one must use more cloves per recipe for the same flavor.

But there are other differences between the two. Allicin, an organic compound responsible for garlic’s pungent flavor and aroma, is also believed to be useful in treating various diseases. In numbers, an Israeli garlic clove has four or five times the amount of allicin a Chinese clove. This affects both the quality of cooking and consumers’ health, as well as their pockets: So, even if Chinese garlic seems cheaper, one must use more cloves per recipe for the same flavor.

“It’s not ok to throw us under the bus,” Avivi says about the state’s approach. “But this is what is happening. The state should change its reforms and/or join the research efforts for saving Israeli garlic.” Is this the end? “If I weren’t an optimist, I wouldn’t be a farmer,” replies Eisenband. “But it’s hard for me to say. I want to believe the Israeli consumer will make the right choice, because I don’t believe the decision will be overturned. I think it is irreversible.”

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