The one where BBC Business goes bananas

A filmed report by Jeremy Howell titled “Growing crops in drought conditions” which was shown on BBC television news programmes also appeared on the business page of the BBC News website last month.

Technion report

Howell opens his report by telling audiences:

“Travelling up the Jordan Valley and across the Galilee region to reach Haifa in northern Israel makes you aware how serious a problem water is for both Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. To grow the fruit and olives this region produces means taking millions of litres of water a year from the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan. Water volumes in both are at record low levels.”

Unless this report has been trapped in some kind of BBC vaults time warp for the past twelve years – i.e.  since November 29th 2001, when the Sea of Galilee reached its lowest recorded level of -214.87 m – Howell’s latter statement is clearly inaccurate. In fact in early 2013 the water level in the Sea of Galilee reached an eight year high and on November 17th 2013 – the date of Howell’s report – it stood at -211.39 m: 161 cm above the lower red line and 101 cm above the level on the same day the previous year. Since then, the recent storms have added a further 10 cm to the water level. In other words, those “record low levels” are nothing but a figment of Howell’s imagination.

Howell continues:

“But a solution to this area’s currently unsustainable demand for water could be at hand inside this greenhouse on the roof of a building at the Haifa Technion.”

If readers are wondering about the source of Howell’s dubious assertions of “currently unsustainable demand” for water in Israel, a clue to that will come later on. Howell then goes on to interview Professor Shimon Gepstein in connection with his work promoting drought-resistant qualities in plants. 

Howell later goes on to say:

“Plants which need 70% less water to grow could mean a welcome drop in extraction levels from the endangered Sea of Galilee and River Jordan. But Gidon Bromberg of ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East’ is worried the new technology might encourage ever more land in Israel and Jordan to be used to raise water intensive crops like bananas.”

It would of course have been appropriate for Howell to mention at this point that ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East’ has an ongoing campaign concerning the Jordan River and that the organization is not apolitical.

“FoEME supports the Palestinian call for UN recognition of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, in peaceful coexistence with the State of Israel.

This is in keeping with FoEME’s longstanding position supporting a two-state solution in the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative, including mutual recognition of Israeli and Palestinian rights to two separate states based on the 1967 borders.

As far as Water Justice is concerned FoEME has developed its own Water Accord and is leading a campaign under the message that “Water Justice Cannot Wait”. “

The report then cuts to Gidon Bromberg:

“We want efficient use of water resources but then we need to look at the broader question of sustainability. So the growing of bananas in the midst of a semi-arid part of the world doesn’t make much sense. Israel is, you know, top class when it comes to efficiency and the rest of the world has a lot to learn, but on the other hand when it comes to sustainability, Israel is not where it needs to be.”

Some species of bananas have been grown in Israel since the tenth century. Currently, bananas are grown in three main areas: the Jordan Valley around the Sea of Galilee, the Western Galilee and the coastal plain. Practically all the 60,000 tons or so of fruit produced annually is for the domestic market: Israel does not export bananas. Of course some might say that it is in fact more ‘sustainable’ for Israelis to grow their own bananas rather than to import them from abroad with the associated ‘food miles’, in particular as methods are already in use which reduce the demand for water by 20 – 30%. Ironically, Howell interviews Bromberg whilst he is standing inside a banana grove using just such a method: special netting which provides shade from the sun’s rays, reduces evaporation and creates a micro-climate. 

banana netting

Howell continues:

“Professor Gepstein has sold the patents to his discovery to a Californian seed company Arcadia Bio. His real hope is for drought-resistant crops to be grown in the desert countries of the Middle East – in uncultivated areas of the Sinai, say, or the Sahara. It would boost world food supply and boost the incomes of local people. He’s asking Middle Eastern countries to collaborate with him to develop the technology. But for political reasons, most of them refuse to deal with Israel and they’ve ignored his offer. It’ll take time and delicate diplomacy to persuade them to use an Israeli discovery to help make their deserts bloom.”

What Howell neglects to inform BBC audiences is that Professor Gepstein’s discovery (first published, by the way, in 2007) is en route to a much bigger market unfettered by politically motivated self-defeating boycotts. 

“The drought-resistance technology was patented and licensed by the universities to Arcadia Biosciences, a California agro-tech company, which sublicensed it to seed companies that sell the engineered product in the United States and abroad. In July 2013, a Chinese patent was approved, paving the way for the Israeli-innovated technology in another vast market.”

This is the second BBC report in recent weeks which has promoted the agenda of ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East’ and in this case, the contribution provided by that organization adds nothing whatsoever to audience comprehension of the report’s subject matter. Once again, however, the BBC has neglected to conform to its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by failing to inform audiences of an NGOs political agenda.

“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

And of course Howell’s adherence to BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy may have improved considerably had he taken account of FoEME’s agenda and hence avoided repeating such embarrassing inaccuracies about “record low levels” in the Sea of Galilee and “unsustainable demand” for water in a country now well on the other side of its former water crisis.

Related articles:

Promoted and quoted: the BBC’s preferred Middle East NGOs

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