Live and Let Eat: Animal Feed, Biological Diversity, Extreme Climate and a Unique Research Station

By: Prof. Marcelo Sternberg

Prof. Marcelo Sternberg carries out experiments on the impact of extreme drought on different crops, in order to ensure that the future pasture will have sufficient fodder to satisfy grazing animals and that bees will have enough nectar from flowers. In the field laboratory that he manages in the Judean Mountains with the support of KKL-JNF, he examines the effects of drought on plants and animals and on the diet of Israeli sheep and goats hundreds of years from now.
"Do androids dream of electric sheep?" asks science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and we answer that one thing is sure: in two hundred years' time sheep will still need organic food, not food made of conducting wires. The research station of Prof. Sternberg, an experimental ecologist and head of the Plant Ecology Laboratory in the School of Plant Sciences and Food Security in Tel Aviv University, is dedicated exactly to this bleating issue.
Photograph:  Prof. Marcelo Sternberg
Photograph:  Prof. Marcelo Sternberg

The station for researching the effect of climate change on plants and soil, opposite the moshav Mata in the Judean Mountains, was founded by Prof. Sternberg in 2001 with the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and in the past two years its research has been supported by KKL-JNF's Chief Scientist's research foundation. The station is the only one of its kind in the Middle East, from Greece to India. The rationale at the basis of the research is that plants should be studied in their natural habitat in the fields, not in greenhouses in the university. But what is actually done there?
The researchers in the station examine the effect of extreme drought on the ecosystem, or the natural ecological system in our region, which is called "Mediterranean shrub steppe." Today, KKL-JNF manages not only forests but also thousands of dunams of shrub steppe and open areas. One of the subjects that interest the researchers there most is the question of biological diversity and its potential for change in view of the change in the climate in Israel and the world and its effect on the water cycle. The station in the Judean Mountains focuses on one aspect of the water cycle, which is called "the green part" of the water cycle or "the water in soil and plants." Biological diversity is very important because of the stability that it gives to natural systems. Drought can change biological diversity dramatically, and thus damage the stability of the ecosystem and what is called "ecosystem services" – the things that we receive "for free" from nature, which in turn directly affect biological diversity.

But instead of examining future scenarios by means of mere theoretical calculations, Prof. Sternberg and his students bring the future to the present in practice by simulating extreme drought and examining its effects in practice. For this purpose, large shelters are erected in the area of the station, the aim of which is to prevent any contact of natural rain with the soil in the areas selected for long-term research. Instead of rain, the soil under the shelters is watered in a controlled way with a quantity of water equivalent to 180 mm a year, which is one third of the current annual rainfall, in view of the forecast of a significant reduction in the quantity of rain in our region.
Rain has two components – "How much?" and "When?" Therefore, in order to also examine the element of rainfall distribution, one plot under the shelters is irrigated according to a scenario of equally distributed rain events, or more precisely – 9 events of 20 mm of rain in each event, every 10 days (a total of 180 mm precipitation), while another plot is irrigated according to a scenario of storms and concentrated "downpours" of rain – in 3 monthly cycles of 60 mm of rain in each cycle (a total of 180 mm of precipitation).

Afterwards comes the most interesting stage: the researchers wait to see what nature will bring, or what effect the limited precipitation will have, according to each distribution, on the diversity of plant species that grow in the experimental area, and on the nutritious materials, the bacteria, fungi and insects in the soil. In the next stage conclusions are derived from the findings, and the goal is to build future scenarios relating to the effect of climate change on natural resources in the area on the basis of real on-the-ground data. Above all, the idea is to derive strategies for correct conduct from these scenarios in order to reduce as much as possible the dilution of natural resources in the area, including flowers from which the dwindling global bee population extracts nectar, and the fodder of non-electric sheep in the future.
Prof. Sternberg's research is very important for continuity: only collecting data in the long term will enable us to predict future scenarios with increasing precision. The more data taken into account over many years, the greater the precision of predicting scenarios. Today there is insufficient relevant data in the world that has been collected over years, and thus the pioneering research station in the Judean Mountains, which has operated for 20 years, is a path-breaker in its field.

As it is already clear beyond any doubt that with global warming and climate change an Indian rain dance will no longer do the job, "the rain people" of the research station in the Judean mountains are focusing on providing a smart solution for the future. Prof. Sternberg, who regards national infrastructure as important for our future, dreams of additional stations with nationwide distribution in order to increase the variety and quantity of data collected from on the ground. But for this, significant funds are needed, as the annual costs of such stations are high. As money doesn't grow on trees – in this case even controlled rainfall won't help. On the other hand, what would definitely help is recognition by decision-makers of the great importance of research such as that of Prof. Sternberg.