Russia and Israel look set to join forces to improve efficiency on Russian farms after Israel’s agriculture minister visited the Skolkovo Foundation last week, where it was agreed that a working group should be set up to facilitate joint research and development of agricultural technology.
Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (right) shakes hands with Skolkovo vice president Vasily Belov. Photo: Sk.ru
Uri Ariel, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Israel, said Skolkovo was one of the most interesting things his delegation had seen in Russia and proposed the formation of a working group to discuss concrete areas and methods of cooperation.
While Russian imports of fruit from Israel have risen since Russia banned the imports of most food products from the EU, U.S. and other countries in response to sanctions imposed on Russia by those countries over the Ukraine conflict, imports were not on the agenda on Friday, Israeli ambassador Zvi Heifetz told Sk.ru on the sidelines of the delegation’s visit to Skolkovo.
“We sold to Russia before, we sell now, it’s not important,” he said. “Buying and selling, imports and exports, it’s what people do. What’s important in the future is selling our technology, and joint projects in developing it.”
Israeli hi-tech agriculture programs have already been introduced in Russia’s neighbour Belarus – including a catfish farm and hog-breeding farm – and last week’s visit by the delegation aimed to pave the way for their introduction to Russia.
“We believe more in technology and the development of relations based on the introduction of technology than on buying and selling,” said Heifetz.
“We’re strong in this sphere, we have fewer competitors, whereas we’re not the only ones in the world growing fruit,” he said. “Our strength is our technology. That’s why we’re here.”
Israel's ambassador to Moscow, Zvi Heifetz (centre), says exporting technology is more important than exporting fruit. Photo: Sk.ru
Israel produces 92 percent of its own food requirements, as well as exporting to many other countries including Russia. In contrast, Russia imported 27 percent of its food as of the third quarter of last year, despite its far greater size and more moderate climate.
“We set up the agriculture division [of the foundation’s biomedicine cluster] only one year ago, we’re just starting, so it’s hard to propose a concrete project just yet, but we’re keen to establish connections through this meeting,” said Vasily Belov, Skolkovo’s vice president for innovations.
Kirill Kaem, head of Skolkovo’s biomedicine cluster, who will head the working group on the Russian side, outlined the potential benefits for Russia of cooperation with the Israelis, acknowledging that Russia could learn from Israel’s hi-tech success.
“It’s a country with very limited territory, practically in the desert, with limited human resources, yet it’s a fairly major exporter of agricultural produce,” said Kaem. “Secondly, Israel is a cradle and forge for quite a number of hi-tech startups, not only in IT, but in biology. Some of the interesting inventions that can be found in Russia could be able to get financing in Israel,” he said.
But Skolkovo’s leaders believe they can offer Israel something in exchange, and that some of the ideas being developed by tech startups fostered by the foundation could be applied in Israel.
The delegation watched brief presentations of two resident startups of Skolkovo’s biomedicine cluster: EastAgro Don, which has devised a technique for extracting inulin – a naturally occurring polysaccharide that can be used in processed foods, medicine and agriculture – from Jerusalem artichokes, and Fungipack, which is working on making bio-pesticides more efficient and hardy.
Roman Kulikov, head of the biotechnology in agriculture division of the biomedicine cluster, explained the value of EastAgro Don’s project.
“Until now, no one in Russia has produced inulin. We have solely been importing it, though the opportunities for producing it in our country are enormous. But this is hi-tech production, and from a business point of view, it’s quite a long-term investment,” said Kulikov.
The focus was not exclusively on technology exports, however. Agriculture minister Ariel confirmed to Sk.ru after the meeting that Israel was considering the import of Russian eggs.
“We are interested in this product,” said the minister. “Of course, our veterinary inspection service will have to check the quality of eggs produced in Russia. Inspectors are due to come here in the near future to check that Russian products meet all our standards. If they do, then we see potential for the import of many millions of eggs from Russia.”
Ambassador Heifetz said he believed the meeting, though just a starting point, would yield results.
“You have to meet, nothing just happens on its own,” he said, adding that building new cooperation would be a fitting way to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Russian-Israeli relations this year.
Ariel also met with deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich during his visit to Moscow, after which the Israeli minister told Russian media that he hoped an agreement on the creation of a free trade area would be signed in the near future.