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Mizrahi, Y. and A. Nerd. 1996. New crops as a possible solution for the troubled Israeli export market. p.37-45. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

New Crops as a Possible Solution for the Troubled Israeli Export Market

Y. Mizrahi and A. Nerd

    1. Crawling Cacti
    2. Cactus Apple
    3. White Sapote
    4. Desert Apple
    5. Marula
    6. Argan
  5. Table 1
  6. Fig. 1
  7. Fig. 2
  8. Fig. 3

In stimulating articles, Noel Vietmeyer (1986, 1990) pointed out that relatively few plant species, most of which were domesticated thousands of years ago, serve as food for humans and animals, as medicinal plants, and as industrial crops. As a result of atmospheric CO2 increase and global warming, dryer conditions are expected in the future and many existing crop species will unable to survive. Many undeveloped and neglected species could be the new crops of the future, which will tolerate these changing climatic conditions. Research and Development on the development of tolerant crops should be initiated world wide to meet these challenges. New crops should have the potential to thrive in marginal, infertile, dry lands where common crops fail to provide the diversification required to enable sustainable agricultural systems in the future and offer viable commercial opportunities.

Israel is small country (~5 million people and 22,000 km2) that is self sufficient in agricultural production. The local market is tiny and is subject to dramatic fluctuations in supply and demand. When extra few tonnes of fresh fruits and/or vegetables are dumped onto the local markets, prices plummet and farmers cannot make a living. In contrast the export market, mainly Europe, with hundreds of millions of consumers is unlimited from an Israeli point of view. Thus, Israel is basically an export oriented producer. At its peak, the export volume of fresh agriculture produce (mainly fruits, vegetables, and flowers) from Israel was valued around US$1 billion/year. In the 1960s the fruit export industry (mainly citrus, with the famous `Jaffa' orange being the main product) constituted one of the main sources of foreign currency (out of a total export market of US$211 million agricultural produce comprised about US$64 million, i.e., 30.3% of the total!). Today, Israel is an industrial exporting country with total annual export value of US$14 billion while exports of agricultural fresh produce amount to US$547 million, a mere 3.9% of the total (Statistical Abstracts 1994). It is obvious that a small country such as Israel has to compete in world markets in terms of quality rather than quantity. As a result, millions of R&D dollars have been invested in the past two decades to enable Israel to compete in the world markets with the best possible products giving the highest possible return to the growers. Despite the huge input of R&D in the agricultural sector, the production of the citrus is diminishing (Fig. 1) due to lack of profitability (Fig. 2) and farmers are complaining. Citrus sales have diminished by 30.6% from 1990 to 1993 and profitability in terms of revenue's buying power has declined to 57.3% when inflation is taken into account (Fig. 2; Statistical Abstracts 1994; BDO 1995). The Israeli tomato export industry has stagnated at 8,000 t annually for the past few years, despite the enormous R&D efforts that have produced the world's finest quality (Statistical Abstracts 1994). Israel has additional cost limitations on its competitiveness. Water is a major limiting factor and its actual price is very high (US$0.22 per m3) and the alternative price is even higher. Labor is very expensive, since farmers are in the upper middle class strata. More than 90% of the agricultural community in Israel is either a kibbutz (community farm) or a moshav (family farm) with minimum hired labor, where most of the work is performed by the farm owners and their families. Gross income below US$100 and even 150 US$/day is considered very low. Israel's competitors in the world markets pay to agricultural workers 10% and less of this sum! Finally, energy is expensive, since almost all the country's energy is imported.

These problems have led many experts in Israel to raise the possibility of giving up agricultural production, even for the local markets, and purchasing all the country's agricultural needs abroad, as do Singapore and Hong Kong. We subscribe to a totally different approach. We believe that supplying the new crops niche in the world markets will serve as a remedy for the troubled Israeli agricultural export industry.


In a free market every product is following the profit cycle, as described in Fig. 3. When a totally new crop is first marketed, no profit is expected, since the market has yet to accustom itself to the product. At this stage, low prices are set to attract consumers. In many cases, the market does not respond to the new product, and it simply vanishes without being noticed by most consumers. But if the market likes the new product (perhaps as a result of good marketing strategy), profits will rise as a result of increasing demand and improved production efficiency (Fletcher et al. 1995). Maximum profitability will be achieved by the first producer as long as he is the only suplier in the market. Competition will then start, first with the most efficient and aware producers and from many others. As a result, profitability will decline, and as with all common crops, it will fall to a maginal level. At this stage, only the big and efficient producers can survive. It is thus evident that Israel cannot compete in the market for common crops. A good example of the scenario described above is the "iceberg lettuce episode." In the late 1970s, Marks and Spencer (from the UK) approached the Negev R&D Organization to test the feasibility of growing iceberg lettuce in the Israeli Negev Desert for their chain. Farmers in the Arava valley (Moshav Ein Yahav and Hatzeva) produced the best iceberg lettuce that Marks and Spencer had ever received. The company, which was ready to pay these farmes higher prices than those given their American counterparts in California, was mystified by the refusal of the Israeli farmers to accept the contract. The buyers from Marks & Spencer simply did not understand that these farmers consisted of very small farms (4 ha!), expensive water, and very high energy, and labor costs. In no way, could they compete with the large American producers.

On the other hand, when we start with totally new product, the high profits obtained for small quantities of exotic fruits and vegetables, creates a natural niche for Israeli farmers. These farmers, being highly educated, can easily adopt new crops and new technologies. Israel is also blessed with research institutions and extension services capable of carrying an efficient R&D programs, which are essential for the introduction of new crops. In addition, Israel has a single efficient marketing arm of agricultural products (AGREXCO), which can easily adapt to such programs.

Unfortunately, such a strategy has not yet been adopted by the Israeli R&D authorities. The main objection to such R&D programs is the fact that the market size and the prices of the new products are unknown. Our feeling is that such a niche does exist, and the only way to confirm its existence is to test it. Even the return from R&D is expected to be higher when dealing with new crops. We may ask the question: how much can new R&D increase the profitability of well-established crop at the edge of their profit cycle? We claim that such an effort can yield much more when new crops are investigated.

Unfortunately, in Israel as in most other countries, most agricultural R&D is conducted with money raised as levies from sales. Thus apple growers for example, would like to see their money invested back into R&D on apples. The bigger the crop and the greater the body of knowledge about its biological and agricultural aspects, more R&D is applied. As a result, money is allocated mainly to the "good old crops," while the new crops of the future are neglected. A change in policy is needed to promote more research in the direction of new crops.


In the light of the dilemma discussed above, we initiated in 1984 an R&D project for the "Introduction and domestication of rare and wild fruit and nut trees as new crops to the Israeli Negev Desert" (Nerd et al 1990; 1993). This project includes about 40 different fruit tree species (Table 1) from all over the world that are considered to be potential new export crops. For the project, four sites were selected in the Negev Desert and one location in the Judean Desert, each site differing from the others in terms of climate, soil, and water (Nerd et al. 1990, 1993). The first stage, which lasted about 10 years, was devoted to assessing the survival, growth, phenology, yields, and quality of seedlings of the investigated species. For all the species we preferred to start with seedlings, which provide wide base of genetic backgrounds, rather than to concentrate on a very narrow base of vegetatively propagated preselected genotypes. Many species did not survive, and others are still at various stages of R&D, far away from any onsiderations of economic potential. Four types of fruit have already been moved to the second stage of this program, which will enable us to provide economic evaluation, such as the cost of various inputs per unit area and the output during the years up to the time that the orchards will reach the full production stage. In this second stage of the project, vegetatively propagated specimens are also being tested in a cultivar trial. The expected small quantities that will be produced at this stage (20-30 t/year/crop) will also enable us to evaluate the marketing and find solutions to post-harvest problems. The market figures will enable farmers to take decisions whether or not to enter into the arena of these new crops.

The species that are currently in the second stage of the project include: (1) climbing trellised cacti growing in net houses--Selenicereus megalanthus and three species of Hylocereus; (2) the outdoor-grown cactus Cereus peruvianus, also known as apple cactus; (3) white sapote (Casimiroa edulis); and (4) Ber (Ziziphus mauritiana) also known as "desert apple," a species introduced from India. Two more species are under consideration for moving to the second R&D stage: (5) marula (Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra), for which 10 clones are currently being propagated and will be ready for planting next year, and (6) argan (Argania spinosa), a wild oil tree from Morocco, which will be promoted to the second stage after the selection of the current fruiting year.

Crawling Cacti

These species which are native to Central and north South America, climb on tree trunks in the tropics and may be epiphytic (Gibson and Nobel 1986). Their fruits have various sizes, tastes, shapes, and colors. Some have spines that abscise upon ripening and others have scales of various shapes and colors. The pulp also varies in color from white to various hues of red and purple, while the abundant seeds may be soft and edible (Mizrahi et al. 1996). The reproductive biology of these species is described in a review by Nerd and Mizrahi (1996). Five genotypes are already growing in an area of 2 ha, mainly in net houses since they require shade (Nerd et al. 1990; Raveh et al. 1993; Mizrahi et al. 1996). One clone of Selenicereus megalanthus, also known as yellow pitaya, is being cultivated (Weiss et al. 1995). Yellow pitaya is already an established crop that is being exported worldwide from Colombia (Arcadio 1986; Cacioppo 1990; Mizrahi et al. 1996). Other clones include one of Hylocereus polyrhizus, one of H. undatus and two of Hylocereus sp. (Barbeau 1990), all our selections. These clones have been planted in two plantations, each of 0.5 ha. Each clone was planted in a different row to allow cross pollination from the neighboring rows (Weiss et al. 1994b). All were planted in the late summer of 1993 as rooted cuttings removed from the same mother plants, and all started to fruit in 1994. In these plantations two net houses were planted, one with 50% shade in the Arava valley, having a hot climate and saline water (EC 4 dS/m), and the other with both 30% and 60% shade sections in the Besor area, which is characterized by good quality water (EC 1 dS/m) and moderate temperatures with only rare frosts (Nerd et al. 1993). The second hectare was planted in the Yad Mordekhay area, with sub-freezing temperatures as low as -4deg.C; here, plastic houses were planted to accommodate selected and non-selected plants. All started to fruit one year after planting.

Cactus Apple

Of many columnar cacti tested by us as potential new crops, one species--Cereus peruvianus--grew the fastest. It started to flower and fruit four years after seeding (Nerd et al. 1993; Weiss et al. 1993). Rooted cuttings of seven clones of this cactus, selected from over 300 seedlings, were planted in the Arava valley and the Besor, with a total area of 2 ha. All cuttings were planted as a mixture of clones, since this species demonstrates self-incompatibility (Weiss et al 1994a). The reproductive biology of this cactus is also described in the review of Nerd and Mizrahi (1996). All clones started to flower and fruit two years after planting. Over 1,000 seedlings have been planted for further selection.

White Sapote

White sapote (Casimiroa edulis, Rutaceae) is an evergreen medium-size tree native to the highlands of Mexico and Central America. The fruits are green-yellow, with a thin skin and a creamy white-yellow sweet flesh (Morton 1987). Selected clones are available, mainly in Southern California (Chambers 1984; Morton 1987), and some effort has been made to introduce the species into New Zealand and Australia (Dawes and Martin 1988; George et al. 1988). A small commercial plantation (16 hectares) with selected cultivars is being grown in Carpenteria near Santa Barbara, California and the fruits can be found as an exotic item in the United States and Australia. Early tests in the Israeli Negev Desert demonstrated partial tolerance to salinity (Nerd et al. 1992). In autumn 1992 and spring of 1993, 21 grafted clones were planted in Qetura and Besor; 16 were introduced as bud-wood from Fallbrook, Southern California (from R.R. Chambers orchard), while the remaining five were propagated as grafted bud-wood from our own selections. Nine replications from each clone were planted in three blocks at each location. In 1995 some clones started to flower and set fruits in these two locations.

Desert Apple

Desert apple (Ziziphus mauritiana, Rahmnaceae), also known as ber or Indian jujube, is an evergreen, medium-size, thorny tree believed to be of African origin (Alexander, 1979). The fruits can reach plum size, turning yellow from green as ripening starts, and becomes sweet and sour in taste, both the flesh texture and taste being reminiscent of apples. The fruit has a unique aroma, similar to that of carob, which becomes too strong for "Western" tasters when fully ripe, at which stage the color turns brown. The fruit can be consumed dry, similar to its relative the "Chinese date" Z. jujube. Ber is grown commercially as a desert crop (hence the name desert apple) in India. Seedlings and introduced cultivars from India developed and yielded very well (over 100 kg/tree annually) in all our introduction orchards, including areas with frequent sub-freezing temperatures and highly saline water (Nerd et al. 1990). Three Indian cultivars were planted at Neot Hakikar, the lowest point on earth -400 m below sea level with 3,960 mm evaporation/year and saline water (EC 4 dS/m) with Na and Cl as the major ions (Nerd et al. 1993). Most of our introduced fruit tree species did not survive under these conditions, but ber has fruited heavily from very early ages. A semi-commercial plantation was planted by a farmer in 1993, and the first yield was sold in 1995 in the local market, mainly to immigrants from India who are familiar with the fruit.


Marula (Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra, Anacardiaceae) is a large, dioecious, deciduous tree, which grows wild in southern Africa. Female trees bear plum-sized fruits with a thick yellow peel and a translucent, white, highly aromatic sweet-sour fruit, which is eaten fresh, like a small mango, or used to prepare juices, jams, conserves, dry fruit rolls, and alcoholic beverages. The seeds, which are eaten as a delicate nut, are highly appreciated by the locals and hence the name "the kings nut." The nut has high nutritive value and a high oil content (56%) with very good dietetic ratio of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids (Weinert et al. 1990). Trees were established very well at introduction sites in the Negev Desert and produced abundant fruits from early ages, mainly when grown in a hot area with saline water (Qetura) (Nerd and Mizrahi 1993). Trees were badly damaged after a spell of sub-freezing temperatures of -6° and -7°C; all recovered but never set fruits, and thus this species is not recommended for areas with such low temperatures. At Qetura, some pistillate trees are bearing well, over 400 kg/tree annually, and we have moved the species to the second stage of our R&D program to test selected clones on a semi-commercial basis. Ten selected clones are being propagated and will be ready for planting in 1996.


Argan (Argania spinosa, also known as A. sideroxylon, Sapotaceae) is a medium, thorny, evergreen tree native to south western Morocco. The tree bears plum-sized fruits, which are eaten by goats which often climb the trees. The fruits have a bitter pericarp around a stone-like structure, containing one to three kernels with a high oil content (over 50%). The oil has high dietetic value, total unsaturated fatty acids/total saturated fatty acids being around 4.5, a ratio similar to that of olive oil (Morton and Voss 1987; Prendergast and Walker 1992). The oil has a unique aroma and is considered as the best culinary oil by Moroccans, who are the only people familiar with the oil. In Israel, where 600,000 immigrants from Morocco reside, imported argan oil is sold for US$43/liter in comparison with $4/liter for olive oil. Attempts to domesticate this wild tree in Israel started about 10 years ago. The species demonstrated adaptability to the hot hostile environment of the Arava valley when irrigated with brackish water; yields of oil per tree at Qetura were double those at Ramat Negev, which has much milder environmental conditions (Nerd et al. 1994). The oil yield of best specimens was around 1 kg/tree annually. Some seedlings died as a result of infection with Fusarium oxysporum. Until tolerant rootstocks can be found, we decided to plant grafted trees from the best yielding ones and to plant additional seedlings from various habitats in Morocco. Even though this species is not in as advanced stage of introduction as the marula, we consider it to be a high-priority species because of its rarity and the high demand in Israel for its oil.


It is interesting to note that in our earliest publication (Nerd et al. 1990), we mentioned six species as promising, an evaluation based on their early development and growth. These species included white sapote and ber, which are still considered promising, and marula, which has been moved to the second stage of the R&D, but they also include yehib (Cordeauxia edulis), mongongo (Ricinodendron rautanenii), and pitaya agria (Stenocereus gummosus), which did not meet our early optimistic expectations. The latter three species proved to be late yielders (pitaya agria); or exhibited sensitivity to the desert conditions of our introduction sites, such as salinity or sub-freezing temperatures; or were not as abundant in fruiting as the promising species described in this presentation. Other promising species emerged, such as C. peruvianus, with its adaptability to a spectrum of conditions, including slight salinity and sub-freezing temperatures. The species produces early and heavily, giving good-quality, tasty fruits. The most surprising successes were the various crawling cacti (Hylocereus species and S. megalanthus), which did not survive the outdoor Negev Desert conditions (Nerd et al. 1990), but once trellised and protected from high radiation by net houses, started yielding precociously and early to give some of the most beautiful fruits on earth.

Of the six promising species from the first R&D stage, three were moved into the second stage (white sapote, ber, and marula), while others, the apple cactus and the crawling cacti, emerged as promising and already planted as vegetative clones (moved to second stage). This evaluation was based on fruiting (both as yields and fruit quality) and early selection of good-performing specimens.

We anticipate that at least some of these newly introduced species will become export items with profit levels that will be sufficiently high to revive the fruit export industry and replace the old "dying-out" export crops. The high profitability of new fruit crops was demonstrated for kiwi fruit by New Zealand in the world market and for avocado by Israel in the European market. There is no reason why such new exotic fruits will not be the commodities of the future. We should not forget that no crop can stay at its peak forever, and low profits always loom in the future. Mr. Dan Rymon (pers. commun.), found that it took 17 years from the first sales of flower crops in the European markets until Israel was chased out by its competitors. With fruit trees, it may be much much longer, as was the case with the kiwi fruit from New Zealand (47 years) and the `Shamuti' (`Jaffa') orange from Israel (80 years).

We should conclude with an evaluation of the benefits of our program to the world as a whole. Any species that can produce good yields in the Arava valley--the location of both Qetura and Neot Hakikar--can serve as a future crop species that can tolerate extremely high temperatures and salinity. Because of the unique situation in the Negev Desert of short distances between agriculturally different ecozones, we recommend that this area be used as a global laboratory for the introduction and acclimation of new desert crops. In 1994 the International Program for Arid Land Agricultural Crops (IPALAC) was initiated under the auspices of UNESCO. This program is aimed at R&D similar to that described in this paper, to be executed with all kinds of agricultural crops in representative desert areas around the globe.


Table 1. List of candidate species.

Botanical name
Common name Distribution
Carissa grandiflora A. DC. Carrisa Southern America
Sclerocarya birrea subsp. caffra Sounder Marula (Morula) Southern Africa
Spondias cytherea (Spondias dulcis) Forst Ambarella Polynesia
Bombax glabra Malabar nut Central America
Acanthocereus tetragonus (L.) Humlk. Acanthocereus Mexico
Cereus peruvianus (L.) Miller Apple cactus (Pitaya) North South America
Escontria chiotilla (Weber) Britt & Rose Pitaya (Jiotilla) Mexico
Hylocereus costaricensis (Weber) Br. & R. Pitahaya Central America
Hylocereus paolyrhi (Weber) Br. & R. Pitahaya Central America
Hylocereus polyrhizus (Weber) Br. & R. Pitahaya Central America
Hylocereus purpusii (Weber) Br. & R. Pitahaya Central America
Hylocereus undatus (Weber) Br. & R. Pitahaya Central America
Myrtilloactus geometrizans (Mart.) Cons. Pitaya Mexico
Nopalea cochenillifera (L.) Salm-Dyck Nopalito, Nopalea Mexico
Opuntia ficus-indica (L.) Miller Prickly pear Tropical America
Opuntia streptacantha Lem. Prickly pear Tropical America
Pachycereus pringlei (Berger) Britt & Rose Cardon pelon Sonoran Desert
Selenicereus megalanthus (Schum.) Br. & R. Pitaya Columbia
Stenocereus griseus (Haw.) Buxb. Pitaya Oaxaca Mexico
Stenocereus gummosus (Engelm.) Gilbs. Pitaya agria Sonoran Desert
Stenocereus stellatus (Pfeiff.) Riccob. Pitaya Mexico
Stenocereus thurberi (Engelm.) Buxb. Pitaya dulce Sonoran Desert
Stenocereus thurberi var. litoralis (E.) B. Pitaya dulce Sonoran Desert
Cordeauxia edulis Hemsl. Yehib Northeast Africa
Diospyros digyna Jacq. Black sapote South America
Diospyros discolor Willd. Mabolo (Velvet apple) Philline Islands
Diospyros mespiliformis Hocht. Mmilo namibia South Africa
Ricinodendron rautanenii Schinz Mongongo Southern Africa
Rheedia madruno Triana & Planch. Madrono Central America
Dovyalis caffra Warb. Kei apple Southern Africa
Tamarindus indica L. Tamarind Tropical Africa
Strychnos cocculoides Backer Monkey orange Southern Africa
Strychnos spinosa Lam. Monkey orange Southern Africa
Strychnos pungens Solereder Monkey orange Southern Africa
Inga spp. Ice cream bean South America
Artocarpus heterophyllus Lam. Jackfruit Asia
Ziziphus mauritiana Lank. Ber Old World Tropics
Prunus salicifolia H BK. Capulin cherry Mexico
Vangueria infausta Burch. Mmilo Southern Africa
Casimiroa edulis Llave & Lex. White sapote Mexico, Central America
Santalum acuminatum (R. Br.) A. DC. Quandong Australia
Argania spinosa L. Argan Morroco
Chrysophyllum cainito L. Star apple Central America
Manilkara zapota van Royen Sapodilla India, Africa, Central America
Mimusops angel Engler Angel Somalia
Mimusops zeyheri Sond. Mmupudu Southern Africa
Pouteria sapota (Jacq.) Merr. Mammey sapote Central America

Fig. 1. Changes in annual citrus production in Israel 1960-1994. (Statistical Abstracts of Israel 1994).

Fig. 2. Changes in sales volume and in buying power of citrus exporters in Israel 1990-1993. Data are taken from the Statistical Abstracts of Israel (1994). Production during this period decreased and prices increased but well below the consumer price index. The inflation rates were 17.6%, 18.6%, 9.4%, and 11.2% for 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993, respectively (BDO Bavly Milner & Co. 1995). By the time farmers received their money, its value had been eroded due to inflation. The corrected value of their income is calculated from the actual value and the inflation rate.

Fig. 3. Hypothetical product life cycle in a free market. For cut flowers exported from Israel to Europe the span is 17 years (D. Rymon, Agricultural Research Organisation, pers. commun.).

Last update August 15, 1997 aw