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Israelis shopping at Rami Levy supermarket in Jerusalem on April 2, 2020. (Photograph: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
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"Undercutting the Market"

"It was we, not the start-ups, who fed the country": Israeli tomato growers protest imports from Turkey and Gaza

Pini Srizade, one of many frustrated farmers, on distribution chains, the Ministry of Agriculture and the government | "I have fields ready to be planted, but I'm just afraid to plant. This catastrophe will last generations and people will have nothing to eat."

20.04.2020, 16:35

The markets aren’t working, and the supermarket chains know it. They’ve got us cornered," exclaims Pini Srizade, 40, a tomato farmer from the Paami Tashaz farming community in the northern Negev. Sirizade and other local farmers continue to farm and cultivate their tomato crops, but the supermarket chains continue to import tomatoes from Turkey. The growers say there is no shortage of “blue-and-white” tomatoes. "This situation creates uncertainty and is very concerning to the farmers. The supermarkets are the only ones who benefit from this crisis.”

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"Our main problem is the unregulated importation. The supermarket chains are undercutting the market," he said. "They’re not importing because there’s a real shortage. The supermarkets want to force us to lower our prices. I have to pay my employees, buy pesticides and water. I have to sell the goods, and the chains know that" Sirizada says. "The vegetable and fruit market is built like the stock exchange. You have supply and demand— the chains import to increase their supply and lower our prices.”

Pini Srizade's tomatoes. (Photograph: courtesy of the subject)

Farmers who planted tomato seeds long before the corona crisis erupted are now facing a new reality. With open-air produce markets closed during the global epidemic, corporate supermarkets are left to buy all the goods. Meanwhile, the growers find themselves in a difficult position, pressed to accept lower prices for a product with a short shelf time. "We gave all the power to the chains. Think about the difference between the [open-air] Carmel market and [the supermarket chain] Rami Levy. The supermarkets get it, and they’re taking full advantage of it."

"We want to make a respectable living. As farmers, we do not want anyone to buy vegetables for [the exorbitant price of] ten shekels, but I do not want to sell them for less than it takes to grow them," he says. "If the cost of growth is three shekels, I have to sell the product for four shekels. Ten years ago, the supermarkets worked with the farmers based on vegetable collections + 14% [The vegetable collection is a daily price list that varies according to the supply and demand of the vegetables in the wholesale market and is the responsibility of the Plant Council]. If the price was NIS 5, they would pay farmers NIS 5.20. Today they pay a minus 45% for the collection, and that's just plain greedy, "says Sirizada, mentioning that all his expenses have gone up:" Wages, water, pesticides, it doesn't make sense for me to sell tomatoes at the same price as twenty years ago.”

Not only is importation unregulated, Srizade adds that "the chains do a holiday discount for consumers, and the farmers end up paying the costs. If the supermarket chain wants to finance the holiday discount, they should fund it. There’s no holiday discount on the goods they import from Turkey or Gaza. They don't try to negotiate this baloney with them, it wouldn’t work."

"Last week, I put some product in the greenhouse to dry it," Sizzada says, pained. Farmers like Sirizadam, faced with unrestricted importation and the closure of open-air markets, are starting to leave their crops unharvested in the fields. In some cases, growers destroy agricultural produce that could otherwise have reached the markets. "We grow our produce with love. It hurts when you take the seed and plant it, cultivate and water it, and when the time comes to harvest,  you’re told 'no. We have someone who imports from Turkey'."

Supermarket chains do not specify the source of the tomato on the shelf, meaning that consumers who are willing to pay more for locally-grown tomatoes don’t always have the option to do so. Tomatoes imported from Turkey often arrive without their stem, since that is the part most likely  to be damaged by insects during prolonged transport.

Tomatoes from Gaza, with their stem, Rafiah border checkpoint

But farmers say importers have started buying tomatoes from Gaza and and leaving their stem intact. "The importers are pulling a fast one. The paperwork says that the stock is going to the West Bank, but when it gets there, they actually turn around and send it to the Israeli market, "says Sirizade.

"The chains are making a killing. This will be a catastrophe for generations to come —people will have nothing to eat," warns Sirizada. "Me and my friends, Israeli farmers from Metula to Eilat, we guard the borders, we cultivate the land, and we work hard. Even during coronavirus, we worked and made sure nothing was missing for the [Passover] holiday," he says.

The uncertainty is very worrying: "We’ve just became discouraged about growing. It’s becoming economically unsustainable. I have fields ready to plant, and I'm just scared to plant."

Sirizada is critical of the government, and of the Ministry of Agriculture in particular, which does not regulate competition between farmers in Israel, Gaza, and Turkey. "Why doesn’t the Ministry of Agriculture update customs duties on imports?" he asks. "Customs has charged NIS 1.24 per kilo of tomatoes for twenty years. Twenty years ago NIS 1.24 didn’t mean the same thing as today. Why did they keep customs the same when the minimum wage in Israel rose and water prices went up? Why didn't customs increase accordingly?"

"We’re the ones who feed the country – not the start-ups. If the government doesn't protect the farmers, their children will only have holograms to eat," Srizada warns. "Even the wealthiest man had no eggs back when they were in short supply. I hope the government understands that, especially in Israel, and with our neighbors, it is impossible to rely on imports to feed the country. Today it’s Corona, tomorrow it’s a war."

"I have a responsibility to feed the country. I’m doing this not just for myself, but for all of you," he appeals to consumers. "The Israeli public will understand this soon enough. On Independence Day, when tomatoes will cost NIS 15, it won't matter how many imported goods we have.”

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Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut

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