Desert Fruits

Categorie(s): Agriculture, thematic lessons

In Mediterranean countries (like Israël, Spain and others) a lot of vegetables and fruit is grown for markets in Middle and Northern Europe.

In the Mediterranean climate irrigation is indispensible for growing anything. Water is partly taken from subterranean aquifers which will be emptied in time. Regions that are already semideserts can develop to real deserts in the long run.
The ‘sustainable footprint’ of this form of agriculture and horticulture is negative: the region can become uninhabitable after some decades.
This has happened before.

The project ‘Desert fruits’ is about a possibility to make agriculture in dry climates more sustainable. Students can use this case to study positive and negative footprints of different forms of food production.

The more general theme WATER can be used for different assignments around sustainability connected with geography, history, biology and social sciences

In this article you find a nice example of working within the local ecology in stead of against it.: desert plants in the desert used for food production.


Desert Fruits

Cactuses will be the fruit trees of the future, this is the hope of Israëli agriculture scientist Yosef Mizrahi. He thinks the desert may be the best place for clean and sustainable food production.
He wants to improve species of cactuses so that they can produce profitable amounts of fruits – without the need of pesticides or much water – for no weeds can grow in the harsh environment of the desert
Israel has been admired for the way it developed fertile fruit orchards in the desert. But this form of agricilture is declining now. Water is becoming scarse and expensive. The famous desert agriculture is no longer paying off. That is – not this form of desert agriculture. Israeli agricultural scientist Yosef Mizrahi of Ben Gurion University in Beersheva says we must learn to think the other way around: not change the desert into an orchard, but develop desert plants into crops. Fruit trees do not grow in deserts by nature, for they need much to much water

Mizrahi got this idea from seeing cactuses in the Negev desert, species like the nopal (or ‘prickly pear’). This species was introduced by the Spaniards in Europe. Around the Mediterranean it grows well. You can find the wild plants everywhere. The fruits are harvested by nomads. But to make it a useful crop more is needed. A modern farmer cannot live from the production of wild plants.
Mizrahi succeded in developing nopal to a crop by supplying a good fertilising program. He also found new insights in the physiology of the plants

To stay ahead of the competitors (because other Mediterranean countries also started growing nopal) Mizrahi had to invent something new. He selected a number of desert plants from all over the world and tested their growth in the Negev Desert, among them cactuses but also other types. The best ones were selected.
Cactuses turned out to be unpredictable. This is not so strange, says Mexican etnobotanicist Alejandro Casas. In the Tehuacan vally, the origin of many cactus species but also of corn (maize), he discovered that in old times cactuses were used frequently, but not improved. In fact they are still in the most primitive phase of improvement. This can be explained by the fact they can adapt to the unpredictable character of their habitat. The ever changing rainfall and presence of pollinating animals make the cactus itself unpredictable too.
By using modern insights into the physiology of reproduction Mizrahi hopes to improve cactuses away from their primitive stage.
One of his recent succeses is the ‘pillarcactus’ Cereus Peruvianus. The first and only commercial plantation of this species is found in the Negev Desert. This species can live several months without water – which is a good aspect, but also a problem. Irrigation is an instrument for the manipulation of the growth of crops.
Many tradtional tecniques can not be used for cactuses because of this. Mizrahi will have to think of new methods of improvement.

In countries like southern Spain, Canary Isles there is nowadays intensive agriculture under plastic, where enormous amounts of tomatoes, bananas, vegetables are produced.
The plastic greenhouses make more harvests per year possible. The water for irrigation is pumped up from deep layers. This can cause a drying up of the areas in the future

The system also attracts workers, partly living illegally in the region. But without them the production would be impossible.
The use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer can cause other problems.
The system is not sustainable, both from an ecological and a social viewpoint.
Why does it still work? (for the time being)
People in the richer countries must be fed. They want to be able to buy cheap fruit and vegetables through the year and they want tropical and subtropical products. City people don’t know the seasons anymore in their eating habits.
By eating tomatoes from Spain, bananas from Tenerife, avocado’s from Israel, green beans from Ethiopia northern Europeans keep this unsustainable system alive.
But the people over there also need their income…
(For the America’s and Asia you can fill in other countries for the same problem)


a. How much of the fruit and veggies you eat comes from that type of horticulture?
Ask in the supermarket or shop where your family buys food, where the veggies and fruit on the shelves came from, how they have been transported and how long they have been in transit.
b. In this way you can do research on your own footprint in other parts of the world. How sustainable is your personal footprint? What can you do to make it more sustainable?
c. Find out which products from your own country could be used instead.
d. We must not forget the people who must earn their living in that type of agri- and horticulture. How could employment in those regions be promoted in an sustainable manner?
e. Where can you find products made from cactus fruits in your city? Try to find out from which country they come.

Desert agriculture like in the theme DESERT FRUITS could be a possibility to grow food in a dry climate without damaging the local ecology too much.
You could call this ‘working with the ecology’ in stead of ‘working against the ecology’ – like growing crops needing much water in dry areas

This you can do best by working in a group, (or perhaps internationally by using e-mail discussions); you can gather information, discuss, research possibilities of agriculture working ‘with ecology’. (This could mean edible cactuses in the desert, but also species needing water in wet places, products that do not stay good for long  near population centres etc).