If there is one holiday that brings Jews close to nature it is Sukkot. Both with the dwelling in the sukkah and the use of the lulav and etrog Jews are reconnected with the land and its produce. What messages might this encounter engender?
To some, there is a reminder of the delicate balance of nature and of our responsibility to serve as careful conservators and thoughtful custodians of the earth. To others, there is an implicit warning that persistent alterations in nature will be disastrous. Reliance on genetic modifications of crops, globalized agriculture, and industrial farming is potentially catastrophic. A reversion to small scale, organic, and locally grown fruits and vegetables is the better choice. The way our ancestors lived when they lived in Sukkot is the way people ought to live today as we celebrate Sukkot.
This second, radical message is disputed by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu in their recently published book entitled The Locavores’s Dilemma. Far from advocating the excesses of industrialized farming of defending the modern system of bringing food to our tables as risk-free or in no need of improvement, the authors challenge their readers with a fundamental question. “If our agricultural past was so great, why were modern animal and plant breeds, long distance trade in food, and modern production and processing technologies developed in the first place?”
The answer is simple. The “good old days” were not good at all. Heirloom plants -championed by some today – were abandoned by our great grandparents because they had lower yields, irregular ripening, and were less resistant to disease. Heritage animals were replaced by newer breeds because the former were more aggressive, cost more to raise per pound of meat produced, and did not taste at all that good as their replacements. Not to mention the greater number of pathogens, natural manure was always dirtier, smellier than the chemical alternatives. And it took months of composting to produce. Mineral and plant-based pesticides were less effective and (like arsenic) more harmful to humans. They were also more likely to allow for insect resistance. Working the land as our ancestors did made them vulnerable to famine, malnutrition, shorter life-expectancy, and disease. In truth, our great grandparents would have welcomed the variety, safety, convenience, and freshness of food we enjoy today.
Perhaps it is no accident that the cautionary note of Ecclesiastes (7:10) is read in the synagogue during Sukkot: “Do not say: ‘How has it happened that former times were better than these?’ for it is not wise of you to ask that question.” Idealizing the past and advocating a return thereto is not the solution. Wisely and judiciously using our technology in the service of the improvement of humanity is.