“My kid thinks milk comes from the dairy case.”
It’s a parent’s perennial lament. But truth is, most Americans think their survival depends on grocery stores. Tu B’Shevat, which is just behind us, and Passover, which is just ahead, are good times to look past the stores, to where our food and drink really come from, so we can appreciate
• How far we’ve advanced in the past century
• How much we’ve separated ourselves from Nature, and
• How much we need to re-connect with it
Today’s food industry is dramatically different from our ancestors’. Without fossil-fueled machinery, refrigeration, genetically modified organism seeds, and dairy growth hormones, our forebears had to grow their food in season, using local resources, and eat it fresh. Grains could be stored for a season, but transportation was limited a few hundred miles, not thousands, as in today’s refrigerated world. To preserve their protein (meat and fish), humans used salt. Refrigeration, which freed us from only eating seasonal foods, also killed the salt market.
At the end of each harvest season, farmers saved seeds from their hardiest plants, the ones that showed the most resistance to pests and environmental stresses, and planted them the following season. As humans spread out from the Middle East, they carried these seeds with them to start lives in new places. The seeds our ancestors nurtured season after season are the ones we now use to grow our food, and provide the bases for the world’s farming.
So the ancient Israelites took very little for granted — which shows in the prayers they passed down to us. They thanked God for awakening in the morning, beholding Creation, partaking of food and drink, completing childbirth, traveling. They express wonder, wariness around nature, and, sometimes, superstition. We may not want to connect as much with nature as our ancestors did — living outdoors in caves and tents, and subsisting on nearby seasonal foods, daily hunting, salted meats, and milk and cheese from pastured sheep and goats. But we do need to understand and honor what nature provides for us, and make sure we continue to support it.
In the past century, we have become so specialized in our economy that today fewer than 22 percent of America’s 134 million working citizens connect with nature — in extraction (0.5 percent), farming (3 percent), transportation (3 percent), construction (5 percent), and manufacturing (10 percent). Most of us work removed from it in government (9 percent), education (10 percent), and services such as retail, wholesale, creative, legal, finance, management, and health care (59 percent).
It’s a marvel that one-fifth of our people supply the essentials for our entire society. It’s a greater marvel that all of our food and water — for more than 304 million Americans — is supplied by just 2 million farmers, 1.6 million food manufacturing workers, and a half million utility workers. They can do that thanks to last century’s explosion of technological and chemical advancements, ones that helped American farmers boost grain production from 20 bushels an acre to 200, and milk production from 125 million pounds in 1958 to 13.7 billion pounds today.
But here are the rubs:
• Our widely extended food supply system depends on fossil fuels — if their prices go up, our food prices go up,
• Food production is increasingly a factory-based system. As it mass-produces a smaller and smaller range of products, at lower and lower prices, we lose the natural diversity of seeds and plants that generate new survival traits in the environment, and erode our own ability to survive,
• By narrowing our seed and plant varieties, we’re increasing our vulnerability to disease and food system failure. Currently, America’s only got 2 million small, diversified-product farms. Nearly 89 percent of our farmland is planted in just four high-volume, low-cost crops: Corn (27 percent), soybeans (24 percent), hay (18.7 percent) and wheat (18.6 percent). For the full story, read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and watch the scary documentary, Food, Inc. Half of America’s corn crops are grown from six seed varieties, 90 percent of our soybean crops are grown from one. Most of both are supplied by just one company: Monsanto.
• Finally, most of America’s meat cattle are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations, and fed corn, because it fattens them faster than their natural food, grass. Corn changes their stomach chemistry, however, so it no longer kills e coli bacteria, which now gets passed to the ground in their droppings, and carried far and wide in rain-driven runoff. So we’re increasingly seeing e coli outbreaks not just in meat, but in vegetables, too.
This is a lot to digest. What to do? Use Tu B’Shvat and Pesach to take a new look at the food you choose to celebrate these holidays. As much as possible, buy local, heirloom and/or organic. Know that you “vote” with your dollars: what you buy is what the food industry will supply. And the more diverse food varieties you buy — whether from the grocery store or the farmer’s market, the more you ensure your own, your children’s and your planet’s health, and survival.