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The True Cost of Food

Barbara Lerman-Golomb, Director of Education and Outreach, Hazon
From PresenTense Magazine – February 2009

Last winter I was at a retreat hosted by a Jewish organization when on the buffet table I spotted something white. It was watermelon, in February in Upstate New York, which was literally unnatural and tasteless. I thought about our unsustainable demand for food and all the energy it took to get that watermelon from farm to fork and wondered, what is the true cost of our food?

Like all our lifestyle choices, our food choices increase our carbon footprint and therefore affect our health and the health and sustainability of our planet.
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, around eighty percent of the energy used in the US food system can be attributed to processing, packaging, transporting, storing, and preparing food. In fact, after transportation, the food sector uses more fossil fuels than any other sector of our economy.

As Michael Pollan writes in his recent New York Times Magazine article, “Farmer in Chief”: “Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation.” The Worldwatch Institute estimates that the average food item travels between 1500 and 2500 miles before we eat it, burning fossil fuels along the way.

Ultimately, Pollan is saying that “when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.” Carbon dioxide, methane gas, and nitrous oxide, the greenhouse gases most responsible for climate change, are all byproducts of the production and distribution of food. Extreme temperature changes can result in heat waves, wildfires, flooding, and drought, putting land and crop yields at risk of shortages. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. More vulnerable populations (the poor, the elderly, indigenous populations and children) are already being disproportionately affected, going against the Jewish principle of pekuach nefesh, the obligation to save and preserve life. Among the many environmental disasters of our current food system, how ironic that our food choices can lead to others going hungry.

So, what’s a consumer to do? One option in adopting a “low carbon” diet is to be selective with the kind of produce you purchase. Buying produce that is grown in organic soils, which capture and store more carbon dioxide than soils from conventional farms, would help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If we grew all of our corn and soybeans organically, we would remove 580 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere! Buying more locally grown, seasonal food or participating in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program will also greatly aide in pro-environmental consumerism. As a member of a CSA, you buy a share in a local farm, the money goes to help support the farmer’s livelihood, and in return you get local, mostly organic produce each week through the growing season. Buying locally (within 100-200 miles) keeps money in your community, while wasting less resources, which adheres to the Jewish law of bal tashchit, do not destroy.

While CSAs have been around in the US for over twenty years, the organization Hazon created Tuv Ha’Aretz in 2004, the first Jewish CSA in North America. Since that time, Hazon has taken the lead in the new Jewish food movement with education and conscious-raising conversation on the issue of healthy food and sustainability in the Jewish community. Tuv Ha’Aretz, which means both “good for the land” and “best of the land,” is putting Jewish purchasing power behind local organic farms, which is not only economically, but environmentally and ethically beneficial. Hazon also brings contemporary food issues to the forefront through its blog “The Jew & The Carrot” and the annual Hazon Food Conference, a gathering of farmers, rabbis, chefs, foodies, policy experts and many others. The new Jewish food movement is a hot topic as evidenced by the 565 people who attended the Conference on December 25-28, 2008 at the Asilomar Retreat and Conference Center in Monterey, CA.

A discussion of food and climate change must address the need to significantly reduce our meat consumption. Fruits, vegetables, and grains require ninety-five percent less raw materials to produce. In a 2006 report, the United Nations said that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation combined. Agribusinesses and large factory farms (also known as CAFOs, Confined Animal Feeding Operations), in particular, are major culprits. To counter this, there is a growing movement of small farms that have found methods to avoid much of the harm caused by factory farms and feedlots. Grass-fed beef, for example, is estimated to produce forty percent less greenhouse emissions and grass is easier for cattle to digest, resulting in less methane, the second most significant greenhouse gas. According to the Sierra Club’s National Sustainable Consumption Committee, factory-bred animals are fed a diet of concentrated corn and other grains. Eighty percent or more of the grain grown in the US is fed to cows; it takes ten to sixteen pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat. The cost of raising this grain is enormous, requiring a great amount of land, water and fertilizer. In recent years many consumers have chosen to reduce their meat intake for health and sustainability reasons. In the Jewish community, many meat eaters are choosing to only eat meat on Shabbat. If every American had just one meat-free day a week, it would reduce carbon emissions equal to taking eight million cars off the road.

Some might argue that the beauty of our global economy and free-trade is that we can eat whatever we want, from wherever we want. But as Barbara Kingsolver commented in her book, Small Wonder, “Americans have a taste for food that’s been seeded, fertilized, harvested, processed, and packaged in grossly energy-expensive ways and then shipped, often refrigerated, for so many miles it might as well be green cheese from the moon.”

Reprinted with permission from PresenTense Magazine

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