Through partnerships, Netafim, a company founded in Israel’s Negev Desert, brings water-saving irrigation technology to farms worldwide.

When it comes to agriculture, sustainability can mean many different things: Providing access to markets for smaller farmers; reducing pollution from pesticides or chemical fertilizers; limiting deforestation and habitat loss; managing soil to avoid nutrient depletion or erosion; or ensuring efficient use of water resources.

In arid landscapes such as Israel’s Negev region, farmers have to be particularly conscientious about water use. But as concerns about the future of agriculture in changing economic and climatic conditions rise, farmers the world over are beginning to explore ways to stretch what may become an increasingly limited resource.

In a conversation with MIT SMR’s Nina Kruschwitz, Netafim’s chief sustainability officer, Naty Barak, explains how the Israeli company’s origins in arid-zone agriculture in 1965 became a springboard to a wider market for agricultural producers to maximize water efficiency. He also explains how the company’s partnerships with NGOs seeks to bring the technology to small farmers in the developing world.

How did Netafim get started?

We started Netafim about 50 years ago in the Israeli desert. We introduced drip irrigation to the market. It was a new approach to irrigation and to agriculture that allows you to drip small quantities of water directly to the roots of plants. It is highly efficient. At the time, most farmers used flood irrigation or sprinkle irrigation.

So was Netafim organized in response to resource constraints?

Yes, our kibbutz, Kibbutz Hatzerim, is in the Negev desert. We didn’t have enough water. We had poor soil. We were struggling. The farming was very hard work. And our kibbutz founders were — we thought at the time — getting older. They were probably in their late thirties, and we thought, how is this going to continue? Physically, these guys won’t be able to keep farming much longer; we need to find something to do. Originally, the idea was developed just to provide work for 14 kibbutz members.

Then we met Simcha Blass, the guy who invented [modern] drip irrigation. It was a match made in heaven. He was a water engineer. He was involved in finding solutions for Israel’s water challenges. He was the engineer behind building the pipeline from the Sea of Galilee down to the southern desert.