Fire Friday: Israel – Making the Desert Bloom with Cannabis

Israel is pretty dry, unless you’re right on the coastline, in which case it’s unbearably sticky. Wherever you are, it’s also usually extremely hot in the daytime, and in the desert regions it can also be punishingly cold at night. Unsurprisingly, all of these conditions can be somewhat hard to tolerate—and not just for humans, but for plants like cannabis too.

Much of Israel’s present territory is taken up by a vast desert known as the Negev, which dominates the southern half of the country and stretches down to the northern edge of the Red Sea. The Negev is incredibly arid, receiving an average of just over 30 mm of rainfall per year, and very, very hot in the daytime–we’re talking records of up to 115 degrees.

But that hasn’t stopped Israel from embarking on an ambitious campaign to “greenify” the desert and turn it into a productive and developed region. Already, there are vast plantations of date palms, cherry tomatoes, watermelons, olives and peppers scattered across the desert, and the area given over to agriculture has steadily increased over the last 40 years or so.

Even cannabis has been given its place in the hot, burning sun here in the Negev. Teva Adir, one of Israel’s main medicinal cannabis providers, has a grow operation situated within a kibbutz known as Elipaz, 20 minutes south of the city of Eilat, where owner Geri Kolin has been busy finding out how to make cannabis thrive in the fierce desert climate.

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In general terms, cannabis loves the intense sunshine of the Negev, and many strains also thrive in its extremely low relative humidity–but ultimately, it’s a plant that drinks a lot of water.

I ask Kolin about the inherent environmental sustainability of the concept. Surely turning the desert into a verdant utopia requires vast amounts of water, the one thing deserts are best known to lack. So how does it all work?

Fascinatingly, farmers in the Negev have been hard at work on this very issue for decades. In the 1960s, Israeli firm Netafim pioneered new drip irrigation systems that allowed crops to be grown with minimal amounts of water. Now, Netafim is internationally lauded as among the world’s most sustainable companies, for its commitment to responsible use of water resources.

As well as making use of the best of Israeli agrotech, Kolin’s project in the desert involves an initiative known as MOP Aravah, which will develop cannabis strains uniquely suited for life in the harsh desert conditions. Beyond looking at drought-adapted strains, Kolin’s team of researchers and breeders will also work with varying ratios of salt water to sweetwater, to find out if some cannabis strains can be grown partly with salt water from aquifers that lay deep beneath the desert’s arid surface. If so, this could open the doors for an incredibly sustainable future industry.

Kolin and his team plan to spend at least two years working on MOP Aravah, and have promised to keep DOPE updated with their findings. If they succeed, they could be at the forefront of a global movement to combat desertification, and could share their secrets with places like Spain and California, which are both desperately struggling against this very same problem at this time.

As Kolin so succinctly puts it: “The Environment is our number one priority.”

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