Insects Threaten Israeli National Symbol, the Sabra Fruit

— by Neta Yoffe

An aphid infestation which threatens the sabra fruit and cacti, national symbols of Israel, has been discovered in the Hula Valley located in the northern part of the country.

A team of researchers from Jewish National Fund, Plant Protection Services in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Department of Entomology at the Volcani Center in Beit Dagan, is working hard to find ways to rid the cacti of these aphids.

More after the jump.
According to David Brand, chief forester and head of the Forestry Department of KKL-JNF:

We presume the aphids were introduced into Israel about three or four months ago and we are worried that it will spread throughout Israel. We have many of these sabras in areas all over the country and they are a very important symbol in Israel. We have to take action in order to stop the aphids from spreading.

The sabra cactus is part of the landscape and national heritage of Israel. Hundreds of years ago, it was brought into Palestine for the dye derived from the insects that feed off the plant’s sap. Later, the cacti were used to create a natural fence around a village or property to define borders, keep animals in and people out.

Most importantly for Israelis, they are the source of the term tzabar, “sabra,” used to describe Jews born in Israel, as well as their characteristics.

The origin of the word, Sabra comes from the Hebrew word for the cactus fruit, Tsabar. Israelis are often compared to the Sabra fruit, which is hard and prickly on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside, suggesting that Israelis are rough, tough and rude on the outside, but once you get to know them, they are warm and kind and welcoming.

As for keeping it intact, said Brand:

The first step in stopping an invasive species is to locate the history — where it started and how it has spread — and our aim is to eradicate the insects before they spread further. This is only the beginning, but right now we are trying to stop the damage either by mechanical means [cutting the affected plants] or by spraying.

However, we know for sure that we will not be able to eradicate all the insects in this way, so we also need to get ready to import the aphids’ natural enemies from abroad so they can eradicate or, at least, lower the population of these aphids.

The team, headed by Professor Zvi Mendel from the Volcani Center, is working under the strict regulations of the Plant Protection Services in the Ministry of Agriculture to make sure that when they import the natural enemies of this aphid, officially known by its Latin name, dactylopius opuntiae, they don’t become a problem for other plants in Israel as well.

Brand said,

We are working with full permission of the Plant Protection Services and in collaboration with researchers from the Volcani Institute, and we will make sure that everything we do follows the regulations. We have rich experience in importing natural enemies. We have done it in the past with other insects that invaded Israel and we will not release the natural enemy until we are sure that it will only attack the insects that are attacking the Tsabar.

JNF foresters are not only in charge of Israel’s forests, but of ecosystems all over the country. Brand believes his department can make a major contribution towards stopping the invasion, but knows they have to tread carefully where natural enemies are concerned.

Brand continued:

We are not starting this research from zero, so we don’t believe there will be any problems. In Mexico and other countries, researchers have already identified the natural enemies. But even so, if you import any kind of insect into Israel and you do not examine it very carefully, it could cause damage to other plants.

We know the risks are very, very low, but we still plan to put the natural enemies into quarantine for two or three years. Only after strict examination and only after we are absolutely sure that they will only attack this specific aphid will we release it into the forests and the relevant areas in Israel.

But how did the aphid get there to begin with?

Leaves on some Central American cacti have narcotic substances and sometimes, travelers to Central America return to their home countries with a leaf from these cacti hoping it will grow. Brand and his colleagues think that an Israeli who traveled to Central America may have brought back a leaf that had the insect attached to it.

Brand concluded:

It is, of course, illegal to take any kind of plant material from one country to another, but someone obviously did it and now the consequences are enormous. This is another example of how one person’s action can cause damage to the whole country.

Why Does the Farm Bill Matter to Us?

— by Hannah Lee

Most Americans are protected from the travails and vagaries of our food sources.  The five-year cycle of Congressional debates on agricultural subsidies may underwhelm you, but it is relevant to your family’s well-being in hidden ways.  On Thursday, the Senate approved a new farm bill that would cost nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years.

More after the jump.
Sugar subsidies were left in place.  Crop insurance was reduced for the wealthiest farmers, those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000.  This was through the efforts of Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), saving $1 billion over 10 years. Recipients would now have to take steps to reduce erosion and protect wetlands, according to a last-minute amendment by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia).  The bill eliminated about $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and farmland owners, whether or not they grew crops.

The limited good news is new funding for the next generation of farmers through an amendment by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).  The bill will also expand block grants to states for research and promotion of fruits and vegetables.  It will encourage the expansion of farmers’ markets.  It will consolidate several conservation programs to make them more efficient.

Despite the efforts of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), the biggest cuts were to the food stamp program, now known as the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

The House will begin discussion of the bill after the July 4th recess.  The House Republican budget presented by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) would reduce food stamp spending by about $134 billion over the next decade and turn the program into block grants for the states.

Among the 64 Senators approving the Farm Bill was our own Robert Casey (D), while among the 35 Senators rejecting the Farm Bill was Patrick Toomey (R).   Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) was the sole abstention.  

Beekeeping to Save the World

— by Hannah Lee

Do you know that a world without bees means a world without food?  Farmers — from industrial to small-scale, artisanal ones- depend on these hard-working bees to pollinate the fruit trees.  These tiny creatures are like the “canary in the coal mine” for agriculture and their recent episodes of Colony Collapse Disorder have concerned scientists and environmentalists as well as agriculturalists.

More after the jump.

Among my favorite vendors at the Headhouse Square Farmer’s Market, the largest in Philadelphia, is Toni Price, a retired English teacher whose husband, Steve, is the chief beekeeper and honey bottler, for their Busy Bee Farm located in Tabernacle, N.J.  

Last year, their farm was awarded a Pollinator Habitat Grant from the New Jersey National Resource Conservation Service and the USDA.  As a Master Gardener of Burlington County, Toni handles the care and use of the farm’s lavender and other herbs, as well as her flock of free-range pet chickens. She’d invited my family to visit during the lavender harvest, so I visited her on a hot, sunny day in early July.

Their 22 pastel-colored beehives are scattered on their property on the Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands, a heavily forested area of coastal plain stretching across southern New Jersey, according to Wikipedia.  The Prices are now in Year Two of a three-year pollinator habitat grant: In Year One, they planted 35 trees and shrubs that are native to the Pine Barren.  In Year Two, they are adding perennial flowers and shrubs; and in Year Three, they’ll add native grasses.  They have sought out other federal sources of funding: an irrigation grant; a forestry grant, and a grant to build up to organic certification.  The last one cited is to finance the construction of a deer fence — some 8′ to 10′ high —  to protect the lavender.  The soil is sandy, not loamy, in the Pine Barrens, and that affects which crops thrive there, such as asparagus, sweet potatoes, and blueberries.  Their son’s friend is trying to grow organic hops on a corner of their property — hops are used in beer-making — and the 30-feet-tall decommissioned telephone poles used to stake the plants are a sight to behold.

Honeybees are not native to this country — they are actually from Africa — but the local bumblebees do not produce honey.  If you wish to learn more about Colony-Collapse Disorder and the crucial role that honeybees play in American agriculture, do try to find a showing of Queen of the Sun, a documentary directed by Taggart Siegel that has collected numerous film-festival awards.  

Some good news in beekeeping is the growing movement to appropriate unused land for beehives.  One such example is at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport where “1.5 million bees now call the airport home.” Not only is it a “creative, sustainable, and productive way to use otherwise wasted open space,” the beehives also provide employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated adults.  This movement has been growing in Germany since 1999 when “scientists realized honeybees could be helpful for monitoring air quality,” but O’Hare is the first American airport to get an apiary.  In fact, “it’s a return to the airport’s agricultural roots,” since O’Hare was founded on a former apple orchard and that’s memorialized in the airport’s three-letter abbreviation, ORD.  Now, that’s what I call a sweet story of synergy and it is a fitting message for the Jewish New Year.