Food Studies features the voices of 11 volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. You can explore the full series here.

pollinating plantAs a kid I was always really embarrassed when my mother picked up plastic bags at the beach — I wanted to bury myself in the sand. Something must have rubbed off though, because from my teenage years, I’ve always been interested in recycling and sustainability. I knew I wanted to make a change in how we live, I just didn’t know how.

My father grew up on a farm and, even though I grew up in Tel Aviv, the most metropolitan city in Israel, my family still has a small piece of land outside of the city where we grow oranges. When I was deciding what to study at university, I knew I wanted it to be something to do with the environment, but I always thought of agriculture as a hobby – just something my family would do on the weekends. It was not until a friend suggested that I look into agriculture studies at Hebrew University that I even realized that you could get an academic degree in it!

Now starting my second year, I realize that it was probably the best choice I could have made. I am really in my element — every time I cut a salad my girlfriend has to go through an entire intro to plant biology course! Although it’s part of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, our campus is located about 12 miles south of Tel Aviv, in the town of Rehovot. Although Rehovot is known as a hub for science and biotechnology, on campus things are pretty down-to-earth: we have a goat pen next to the labs.

Classes are difficult but thought-provoking and I’ve discovered that agriculture influences more than I ever thought possible, including international relations between nations and the global economy to name a few. For example, in one class we discussed embodied “virtual water,” something that all Middle Eastern countries rely on to compensate for their lack of indigenous water. “Virtual water” is essentially the amount of water used to produce a specific good — importing one ton of wheat, for instance, is equivalent to importing more than 1000 cubic meters of water. The recent ability of arid Middle Eastern countries to import water-intensive agricultural products has precluded regional conflicts over control of scarce water resources; we can see that water has not been the cause of conflict in the region for over a quarter of a century.

I’ve been working as a research assistant for most of the past year, on a project that seeks to increase crop yields and address water issues by creating more durable and drought-resistant wheat strains. This summer, we’ve also been working on desert-grown tomatoes irrigated with saline and addressing pest-resistance in cotton. These experiences have opened me up to the world of plant cultivar crossbreeding, and the incredible efforts — including painstakingly pollinating individual flowers with tweezers — that researchers are making to help address real-world problems like fresh water shortages and pesticide pollution.

This semester starts late in Israel this year, due to the Jewish holidays and I have yet to choose my new courses. As opposed to last year, there are many more electives, and my specialization in environmental agriculture gets started. I hope to start finding my niche, focusing on specific interests, and acquiring more practical skills. There is a class on irrigation principles, for instance, that should be interesting. One of my main goals this year is learning genetics in order to further my understanding of the breeding experiments I assist with at the lab. There is even a class on the physiology of the honey bee; I’ve heard it’s incredible!