Israeli researchers, upon studying the effects that planting olive trees has had upon the Israeli desert ecosystem, have discovered that planting olive trees in arid areas has numerous environmental benefits. In addition to producing fabulous olive oil, olive trees provide shade for wild animals such as the migratory birds that fly through Israel every year; clean the air of pollutants such as CO2, a major cause for global warming; function as an excellent waste disposal sites for sewage that can be converted into compost; and work to fight off invasive species such as the jackal. The study was conducted jointly by the Faculty of Agriculture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Agricultural Research Organization.

Dr. Zohar Kerem, who partook in the study said that “olive trees aren’t very picky,” noting that they are capable of growing well in even the most arid of locations and don’t require much maintenance. This implies that they have the capacity to fill up the desert with greenery despite an ecosystem’s lack of abundance in natural water resources. Kerem declared, “It’s a golden measure. Even though it’s agriculture, the area remains intact.” Dr. Adi Naali concurred, claiming, “Olive trees reduce wind and soil erosion in the desert. They may be a sustainable solution to desertification from an environmental perspective.”

Desertification is a major environmental problem worldwide, which poses a risk to over 100 different countries at varying levels. Evidently, 38 percent of the planet is made up of arid regions that are at risk of desertification. The problem is especially acute in North Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Southwest China, and in parts of South America. Thus, the findings of this study can be utilized to combat desertification in other countries around the world which suffer from this problem. Environmental consequences of desertification include but are not limited to erosion, a decline in biodiversity, and water scarcity that can lead to severe droughts.

Aside from China, Israel is the only country in the world that is succeeding to shrink its desert. Israel is also the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in trees. Israel managed to do this despite the fact that she is 60 percent desert. Indeed, planting trees and making the desert bloom with vegetation is a major part of the Zionist ethos. Jews around the world donate to the Jewish National Fund with the goal of planting trees in Israel. Israel even has a program in place to grow olive trees utilizing low quality water, in order to ensure that Israel will not unsustainably use up her limited fresh water resources.

Thus, Israel is in a unique position in order to assist other countries with fighting against desertification and has received international recognition for her ability to turn deserts into arable land. As Dr. Nir Atzmon stated, “We’re not the only ones to combat desertification but we are definitely the ones who started it much earlier than any one else.”

Yet olive trees are not the only desert tolerant crop that can be planted in the struggle against desertification. Israel also grows algae for either biofuels or neutraceuticals, which can survive on low quality water, and can assist in the effort to grow high-value products on what many would perceive as land that is difficult to cultivate. Israeli research institutions like Ben-Gurion University, the Technion, and the Weizman Institute have been at the forefront of studying ways that arid countries can make the desert bloom and thus combat desertification.

By Rachel Avraham