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Israel not settled on organics’ origins

Marketplace Staff May 12, 2008

Israel not settled on organics’ origins

Marketplace Staff May 12, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: There’s no shortage of difficult issues Palestinians and Israelis have to agree on before there can be a peace like the one Jeremy Ben Ami was just talking about. One of the most difficult is what to do about the growing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. And it’s not enough that Israelis and Palestinians can’t agree. The settlements are a sore point between Israelis themselves, too — one that surfaces in the most mundane ways.

Organic food’s a great example. It’s a $290 million-a-year industry there. But to some consumers where something’s grown is sometimes more important than how. Daniel Estrin reports from the West Bank.

DANIEL ESTRIN: This is a chicken’s paradise.

SHARONA RAN: Very early in the morning, you just open the door and they go out like a cloud. They’re all out.

Sharona Ran and her husband Avri run an organic farm, located in the hills of biblical Samaria. They call the farm Givot Olam, which means “hills of eternity.” It’s a dramatic name, but for Sharona it’s no exaggeration.

RAN: It’s like stepping on the steps of our ancestors. Because it’s really the place that all the Judaism grew from here. And you can feel it in the air if you know how to breathe here. And it feels exciting.

The Israeli government, however, is not as excited. Givot Olam is an unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank. But it has become one of the biggest producers of organic and free-range eggs in Israel.

That disturbs Avi Levi, an organic consumer in Tel Aviv.

AVI LEVI: I don’t think I want to buy products from this kind of person.

It puts an organic consumer like Levi in a predicament. He says importing food harms the environment and contributes to a global food crisis. But he doesn’t want to support products made in West Bank Jewish settlements. He wants them dismantled, to make way for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Only about 3 percent of Israeli organic food is produced in West Bank Jewish settlements. Some consumers specifically search for products from West Bank settlements to support them. That would be an easy thing to do, if every product made in a West Bank settlement would have the address of origin listed on the package. Problem is . . .

LEVI: Sometimes I find it very hard to track who is the actual producer of the product that I take from the shelf.

Levi browsed the shelves with me at the Organic Market in Tel Aviv. Many products did list the manufacturer’s details. And then we got to the tahini aisle.

LEVI: Organic sesame paste. Produced by producer code: ADT.

One bottle after the other, the producer’s identity was reduced to a string of letters or numbers.

LEVI: Let me see, I have here carob almond spread. Producer code: ANT.

Who is ANT? Well, the bottle did list the distributor’s cell phone number.

ESTRIN: You wanna call?

LEVI: We can call.

So we called.

LEVI: Hello?

The conversation was not what I would call a model of customer service.

ESTRIN: What’d he say?


He said, what do you care who is producing the product? Is it good, you like it? So eat it! What do you care It’s none of your business.

And then the manufacturer hung up the phone. By the way, Levi did a background check on the carob spread and the tahini. He suspects they’re all made in West Bank settlements.

LEVI: It was funny, if it wasn’t sad. The whole issue behind the organic trend is getting to know where your food comes from, and what happens with it, and if it is clean and safe.

ORNIT RAZ [translation]: If you would have called me after you got off the phone, I would have fixed the problem.

That’s Ornit Raz. She heads the Organic Association which sets the standards for organic food here. She believes that politics shouldn’t be an ingredient in organic food.

RAZ: We make sure the product is grown according to the organic principles of integrity, fairness and reliability. Where he lives, and all of this politics, doesn’t interest us.

It also doesn’t seem to bother most Israeli consumers. Either that, or they’re not reading the small print. The Israeli organic food industry grew 30 percent this year.

From the West Bank, I’m Daniel Estrin for Marketplace.

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