Local | News

UA joins global effort with JNF and Israel to secure food, water, energy

(L-R) Jewish National Fund President Sol Lizerbram, JNF Joint Institute Project Co-Director Udi Gat, and Dean of the University of Arizona College of Science and Vice President of Innovation Joaquin Ruiz sign a memorandum of understanding, Sept. 12. Photo courtesy JNF

In an effort to boost global agriculture, the University of Arizona has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Jewish National Fund and Israel’s Arava region to establish The JNF Joint Institute for Global Food, Water and Energy Security.

The memorandum was signed on Sept. 12 by JNF President Sol Lizerbram, D.O.; JNF Joint Institute Project Co-Director Udi Gat; and Dean of UA’s College of Science and Vice President of Innovation Joaquin Ruiz, Ph.D. (On Oct. 1, Ruiz became the UA’s  vice president of global environmental futures.)

The Joint Institute is focused on developing and introducing new technologies to help build food, water, and energy security in vulnerable global communities.

“It’s exciting to combine expertise to work on problems related to the food, energy, and water nexus — one of the grand challenges that is facing all of us,” said Kim Ogden, Ph.D., UA interim vice president for research. “Because of our location, Arizona is truly a living laboratory, and the hands-on training that we will be able to provide can be used for real-world solutions.”

UA has done a good deal of research on land affected by dry climate with limited vegetation and is a leader in water sustainability research through the university’s Water Resources Research Center. WRRC Director Sharon B. Megdal has been deeply involved in the development of the new Joint Institute, and is now a member of the board of governors, along with Ruiz.

“The unique partnership will be an additional opportunity to connect water and environmental sustainability expertise across the University of Arizona to arid regions across the world,” says Megdal.

Water sustainability is a critical concern in both Arizona and Israel. Both UA and the JNF are members of the International Arid Lands Consortium, which explores ways to improve the lives of people living in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world.

“Israel’s south and America’s Southwest know the challenges of farming in arid regions all too well,” Lizerbram said. “Today, both Israel and America lead the world in the development of innovative farming methods for arid areas and this initiative will empower African farmers by democratizing access to agricultural training and knowledge sharing.”

In addition to signing on with the Joint Institute, UA has partnered with Israel for other global cooperation initiatives. In 2017, UA created a partnership with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to focus on developing and researching new technologies in six different sectors. One of those sectors included arid lands agriculture and water.

The groundwork for the Joint Institute began more than a year ago, according to Matt Fragner, who serves as co-chair for JNF’s Arava and Eilot Task Force. Fragner, who has worked with the Arava and Eilot Task Force for seven years, is leading the planning efforts for the new Joint Institute.

Fragner admitted that initially, he didn’t have high hopes for the new institute, but after meeting with participants from the Arava and UA, he saw that both entities had a lot to teach each other.

“As a non-academic lawyer with no formal scientific or governmental experience, I feel very lucky to be part of something that’s more than negotiating long transactional documents between private parties, something that could move the needle for many underserved people,” Fragner said.

In November 2018, JNF took a group of roughly 20 — including representatives from UA — to the Arava region. They toured the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which teach students about environmental sustainability.

“I looked up at our partners from Arizona and saw their eyes literally shining as they listened to the students talk about their experiences,” Fragner said.

The feeling was mutual when Arava’s representatives visited UA’s agricultural projects.

For the Joint Institute, the focus on sustainability is broken down into two components: environmental and cultural. The environmental aspect of the project seeks to have a positive environmental impact that doesn’t deplete resources that are difficult to replace or re-utilize.

But the cultural component also is necessary to ensure that the environmental projects are successfully integrated into the social environment.

JNF Chief Israel Emissary Talia Tzour Avner explained that a great sustainable solution might not be as well-received if it doesn’t integrate with the local culture. She said that it could be a waste of time and resources to develop an idea that ultimately gets rejected.

“For example, if we come up with a great idea on how to grow corn for a community but it turns out that community doesn’t eat corn, we’ve actually created a problem,” Tzour Avner said. “If we bring them something that they don’t use, eat or even cook with, then what was the point?”

To help understand the cultural differences, UA brought on professors of anthropology to assist with research. Tzour Avner said that their contribution is just as valuable for the progress of the Joint Institute.

Right, now Tzour Avner said that the institute is focusing on finding the communities that would benefit from their help the most. She hopes that the institute will have more substantial projects in Africa by the end of next year.

“This really is an unprecedented program for our region, which promotes cooperation between students and farmers in developing countries together with JNF, Israel’s Arava region, and UA to identify the places in which we will work while finding solutions and equipping these farmers with useful solutions,” Gat said.

This article first appeared in the Jewish News (Phoenix). AJP Executive Editor Phyllis Braun contributed to this report.