South East London Friendship Link with Beit Fourik (SELFBF) has established links with a Palestinian agricultural village in the West Bank and facilitated exchange visits. The group has also been involved in researching the fresh produce supply chain between Israel and the UK, examining particularly trade with illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. They have campaigned with supermarkets and have seen an improved response, and the Cooperative supermarket showing willingness to buy Palestinian produce in future. The Group is hoping to make a visit to Beit Fourik in the autumn to discuss a new trade initiative, and advise on labelling, packaging, and food preservation in order to increase the Village’s product portfolio. Last week Daphne Liddle spoke to Sue Phasey, a researcher and consultant in postharvest science and Technical Advisor for SELFBF about the campaign.
Daphne Liddle: Why are supermarkets now meeting with campaigners?
Sue Phasey: It has been a long term campaign to bring about public and government attention to Israeli trade with the UK in general – it’s not something new. However, it has been more difficult to unravel and even explain the trade with illegal Israeli settlements. It’s only because of dedicated campaigns that this has more recently been taken seriously by supermarkets, the main buyers and retailers of Israeli produce in the UK. The government, and particularly the Foreign Office appear to have warmed towards some of the campaigns’ objectives; it’s not clear whether the government’s stance has altered because it merely wants to recoup lost revenue (though that would be relatively small) or as I would prefer to hope, it wants to take a more moral stand on human rights issues for Palestinians. If the latter is true then it would be good to hear it directly and more openly as such from Miliband’s office. Lawyers have been looking into the legality of trading with illegal settlements and there is a suggestion that legal action could be taken.
DL: Why is Israeli produce in such demand?
SP: The fresh produce supply chain is enormously complex and inter-related. You can divide it broadly into northern and southern hemisphere for the purposes of harvest windows throughout the year. There are also many emerging pressing issues to consider; food transport miles, food security, food quality, packaging issues and waste. One of the problems for supermarket buyers (from their perspective) is fulfilling consumer demands for all year round (AYR) quality produce, and it has done so by procuring produce from all corners of the earth. Israeli produce is in high demand because of its consistency in terms of supply, quality and price; as the UK is probably Israel’s most lucrative market, it will seek to meet the challenges of such a demanding and critical market by expanding its growing areas – for example new crop areas for pomegranate and other ‘fashionable’ produce, also new pepper varieties grown on settlements in the West Bank. The use of the Dead Sea area or the Jordan Valley with a growing season from November to May means that it can cover 12 months a year for supply of key crops.
DL:Why has Israel achieved such status with UK supermarkets?
SP:There’s no denying that Israel boasts good facilities and skills in agriculture. Israel continually innovates scientifically, has excellent plant breeding skills and is well tuned in to what consumers in the UK are demanding. It’s also well established in our markets. It is therefore difficult for other regions to compete with Israel, though there are very good producers in Spain, Turkey and other Mediterranean countries. Investment in up and coming growing areas is the only way to ensure that an alternative is offered for big buyers of fresh produce, otherwise they will stick to Israeli produce where possible. The harvest window for AYR supply using the Jordan Valley & Dead Sea (West Bank) region is probably Israel’s best advantage as well as its own government’s investment in agriculture from the beginning of the establishment of the State of Israel.
DL: What are the problems with Israeli agriculture and why should we be concerned?
SP: Supermarkets must consider the human and environmental cost that such intensive growing systems present – Israel has used up vast amounts of water from natural resources to attain such growth (“blooming of the desert”), remember, these kind of crops are not necessarily native to the region, and has caused the growth of the unforgiving Western Flower Thrips pest in the Jordan Valley – both issues have caused severe problems to Jordanian farmers on the other side of the Jordan River, and particularly for Palestinian farmers, now sadly diminishing rapidly. Growing non-native crops in intensive systems also means that there is a high dependency on pesticides; something that has also caused soil and environmental problems in the region. Most importantly, we have to remember that whilst there is reference to ‘illegal settlements’ supposedly used to describe Israeli settlements on the West Bank/Jordan Valley, all settlements and kibbutz are illegal occupations. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Israel seized a lot of farming land from the very beginning and the passing of time does not legitimise or justify it. The conditions of Palestinian workers, Thai workers ought to be thought about seriously. Imagine yourself as a Palestinian who used to have, or should have, farm land, but it was forcibly taken from you or your family and now you are forced to now work on it for the occupiers as poorly paid workers. This is something we must think deeply about, after all growing such crops for our supply chain on what is essentially stolen Palestinian land is an outrage, a piracy, and something that UK supermarkets’ own Code of Practice should force them to declare in the very least as unethical.
DL: What is the issue concerning labelling of produce in this respect?
SP: I strongly believe that if the public really knew of the true history of the land, how Palestinian farmers are losing hectares of land, and how these foods are grown with little regard to the environment or human rights of Palestinians, then I think there would be a blanket boycott of all Israeli goods. Environmental activists should take up the issues as a ‘cause celebre’. However, we must concentrate on exposing the trade from illegal settlements as a primary concern. It is unlikely that all trade will be forbidden overnight of course, so in the meantime there must be some standardisation on labelling. I would have thought that this directive would come from the FSA (Food Standards Agency), and that supermarkets must consider reaching an agreement and some consistency on what should be on the label for produce that is coming from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. We must also be aware that there are clauses in labelling directives from various Codes of Practice that allow produce which has had postharvest minimal processing operations (e.g., trimming, cutting) to be labelled as originating from that secondary source. This means that Israel could in theory harvest produce on settlements and sends to Tel Aviv for trimming operations and label produce as being sourced from “Israel”. This would be misleading, but it would be difficult for an outsider to prove, though supermarkets should be able to track all produce from farm to fork. Difficulties in this respect also occur on mixed pallets – that is to say, it may be difficult to track all boxes of produce on a pallet. This issue again is a requirement of their own Code of Practice, not to mention as a legal requirement. It’s not sufficient to label such produce as being from “the Jordan Valley” or “the West Bank”; consumers need to have an informed choice, and to make their own decision as to whether they will buy illegal settlement produce.
DL: Where does your campaign focus next?
SP: We are continuing to look at collecting all available information on the sourcing of produce from ‘Israel’, and keeping activists, journalists, lawyers, and supermarkets informed of our findings in future. By unravelling some aspects of the supply chain, we are now working out dates of harvest/supply of key crops coming into the UK from ‘Israel’ prior to their own marketing campaigns so that local activist groups can be alerted and leaflet the public and importers or shopkeepers accordingly. We believe that this might be a more effective and focused method of campaigning than the traditional blanket boycott campaign which, nonetheless, is essential. If any campaign groups are interested in this, they can contact the Secretary of SELFBF, Pauline Collins, by email at email@example.com. If we really want to hurt the state of Israel then damaging agricultural trade with the UK will go a long way. Remember the South African boycott worked and so will this.