Conservation from Farm to Fork
This post originally appeared in the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah series.
Last Sunday marked the 42nd annual Earth Day, a celebration of our natural world and recognition of the important role humans play in protecting it by living within our means. This year, Earth Day also happens to fall between Passover and Shavuot, holidays that draw heavily on the power and symbolism of the earth’s gifts to us in the form of food and agriculture. Passover marks the beginning of the harvest season and Shavuot denotes the time when the season’s earliest fruits were brought by farmers to the Temple in Jerusalem.
We are blessed to live on a planet that provides us with clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, and nourishing soil to live on and grow food. But life is much more complex than these simple gifts – and we have polluted, dumped, and strip-mined our ways to the luxuries many of us enjoy today. Our people’s traditional ties to the land may not be as strong as they were in Biblical times, but we bear no less responsibility for the Earth’s well being. This season, we rededicate ourselves to healing the world around us in the short-term and long-term.
Scientific advances have allowed American agriculture to help feed the world’s growing population of 7 billion people, projected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Yet while new technologies and seed genetics have allowed greater production, they have also contributed greatly to the degradation of our farmland, groundwater, and air quality. Furthermore, our large-scale agricultural system would collapse without cheap fossil fuels – nonrenewable resources like oil and coal that speed up production, fuel machinery, and allow food to be shipped tremendous distances. As a result, while it accounts for less than 1.6% of U.S. economy, agriculture contributes 6% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Our generation faces no greater challenge than how to respond to rising carbon levels and human-induced climate change. Many communities in the U.S. and far more in Sub-Saharan African and other developing countries need only look outside to witness its devastating impacts on our changing planet, including encroaching shorelines and dried-up farmland. A Yale University poll released just this week shows that a large majority (69%) of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blazing summer and other weather disasters were related to climate change and scientists agree.
So what can be done? In the midst of our Passover, Shavuot and Earth Day celebrations come deliberations in Congress over the Farm Bill, legislation that sets U.S. policy on farming and food for half a decade at a time. The Farm Bill not only supports robust nutrition programs to aid the millions confronting hunger, but also funds conservation programs that protect air, water, and soil, and incentivizes renewable energy alternatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A smart Farm Bill can help us meet our agricultural and environmental challenges. Genesis 2:15 reminds us that “The human being was placed in the Garden of Eden to till it and to tend it,” and that we must find a balance between using the resources that God has provided us and protecting those resources for generations to come. The Farm Bill is a legislative opportunity to help balance these demands by promoting conservation and energy efficiency in farming, as well as the development of sustainable, renewable energy resources.
Agricultural practices that help restore wetlands and prevent soil erosion on or around farm operations are not only good for the land, but make economic sense, as well. In 2011, American farmers suffered more crop losses than in any other year in recorded history , largely due to historic flooding, droughts, tornadoes and other extreme weather-related events. With 40 percent of our nation’s land used for agriculture, cuts to conservation programs in the Farm Bill would only exacerbate the current losses faced by farmers. Renewable energy installations such as solar panels and wind turbines can also help farmers save money on their energy bills and shield them from rising oil and gas prices.
We read in Midrash, “Do not corrupt or destroy my world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). Whether you spend time in your backyard, volunteer at your local farmers market, or simply want to make healthier choices at the grocery store, consider how the Farm Bill and other national policies reflect our shared Jewish values. Add your voice in calling for a Farm Bill that promotes environmental conservation and good stewardship by signing the Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill , a joint effort of the Jewish community that includes the RAC, American Jewish World Service, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, National Council of Jewish Women, and more. As the Farm Bill is discussed and debated in this season and the next, each of us can help make our country and climate more sustainable, from farm to fork.
Image courtesy of the New York Times.