With Sukkot, the harvest holiday, having just passed, now is a good time to remind ourselves about how much we depend on petroleum products for our industrially produced food — the fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, and for the fuel to power irrigation, farm machinery, processing plants, shipping and distribution systems, and the car you drive to the store to buy it.
Sukkot is also a good time to look at the schach draped over our sukkah roofs, and remind ourselves of our available local resources. See the contrast?
Depending on the distance your “conventional” food travels, 50 to 90 percent of the price you pay simply covers its petroleum inputs. To feed each American each year, requires about 400 gallons of oil equivalents (782.5 tons of greenhouse gases). You may bring some home, in the form of pesticide residues on up to 71 percent of the produce you buy (see the Baker, et al. study at www.omri.org). Also, agricultural production requires about two-thirds of all our fresh water — more than any other human activity.
Why, you may ask, is this cheaper than buying locally grown and organic foods? According to the Organic Farmers Research Foundation (ofrf.org/resources/organicfaqs.html), “factory” farms plant one-time hybrid and genetically modified seeds, and grow them using petroleum-based inputs that more “cheaply” substitute for the labor and intense soil and pest management that organic farms use. Curiously, conventional and organic each get the same yield per acre, but where organic farms create no environmental harm, conventional farms dump pollutants into farm workers, air, soil and water, and the costs for handling pollution-related health and environmental problems are not paid by factory farms; they’re passed on to us. Finally, organic farms are regulated more strictly than factory farms.
So in buying organics, we’re paying more of the “true cost” of growing the food. As petroleum prices rise, however, so will all the costs of inputs to factory farming, and all the prices of the fruits and vegetables they grow. Which means, economically, prices for conventional foods will eventually equal, or become “less competitive” against organics. How soon will that happen? It already has. Meanwhile, at a rate of 20 percent-per-year, prices of organics are steadily coming down. One day, they may actually be cheaper than conventionals.
“Factory farm” is an oxymoron, anyway. A farm is a biotic system that depends on soil and water. If all the soil’s organisms are killed, and its nutrients depleted by unrelenting crop production, and if the water is polluted or depleted, the only ways to keep growing crops are through uses of artificially modified seeds, and artificial growing media, such as petro-chemicals. (Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that America’s chemical-based farm “industry” grew out of World War II explosives manufacturers looking for peacetime opportunities to market their phosphates, nitrates, and poison gases). Since the 1950s, nearly one-third of the world’s cropland has been abandoned because of soil erosion and degradation, according to World Resources Institute. Most of the replacement land has come from removing forests, and reducing the world’s biodiversity.
And then there’s the weather. Your parents and grandparents remember the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, and Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath, when millions of tons of America’s best topsoil blew away from poorly managed farms in a drought that virtually emptied the Midwest of its population. America has not improved its soil management policies since the 1930s, but it has loaded the atmosphere with enough greenhouse gases to alter the planet’s weather.
In times when we did not know so much about science, we prayed for rain, made sacrifices, and bargained with God, as in the second paragraph of the shema: If we kept God’s commandments, God would supply rain in its season, abundant harvests, and contentment. We can use the same formula today: Prayer and mitzvot. While prayer gives us focus — “it couldn’t hurt,” — the mitzvot to do now involve supporting our health and survival on the planet:
• Buy local and organic, rather than distant and petro-chemical. If your budget is tight, get tips from the eHOW list (www.ehow.com/how_4877887_buy-organic-tight-budget.html);
• Reduce your, and your employer’s carbon/greenhouse gas footprints. Start with the Jewish Climate Challenge’s Carbon Calculator (www.carbonsalon.net);
• And, if you’re motivated, grow your own food — blueberries, a fruit tree, strawberries — to re-connect yourself with the earth.
Amory Lovins is often quoted as saying, “We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones.” He is familiar with how to create change: He invented the “soft path” energy conservation structure by which we live today. Now that we have re-rolled the Torahs and moved into the New Year, know that new ideas are the seeds of change, and they can grow into wonderful new ways of life, if we nurture them with daily attention.