(photo credit: )
The first conference on food and sustainability in Israel on Thursday threw into stark relief the complex issues that often go unnoticed as people sit down to their meals.
The one-day conference drew several hundred people to the Tel Aviv Port for a keynote address by author/activist Ruth Ozeki and a series of mini-panels and workshops.
The way food is produced and processed has become a prominent issue in the United States as authors like Ozeki, Michael Pollan and others have thrown a harsh spotlight on the industry in recent years. Ozeki has written about the meat and the potato industries, while Pollan has traced both the industrial and organic food production processes.
While perhaps not as ubiquitous as the food issues in the US, Israel has its own fair share of problems, as the conference demonstrated. Ozeki used her latest novel, All Over Creation, which weaves a story around the history of the potato, to warn of the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
"Genetic engineering is a way for humans to exert control. Scientists and novelists are alike - we're control freaks," she said. However, the difference is that her creations on paper remain fantasies while scientists' creations in the labs become reality.
Ozeki outlined a worrying sequence of events that she noted has already begun to occur. Whereas scientific research into the natural world has been the way of discoveries, inventions and understanding for millennia, there has been a shift toward research conducted for product development. She pointed to a decrease in public funding and an increase in corporate funding for research.
"That shift means there's less worry about all of the potential effects of a discovery in the lab and more pressure to rush a product to market," Ozeki said.
Genetic engineering also encouraged monoculture, heavily planting just one crop instead of diversifying, which in turn was the basis for big business.
"Monoculture is extremely brittle, while nature is flexible, inefficient and redundant and thus resilient to shocks," she told the audience.
The shift from public to private funding for research has been accompanied by another worrying trend, she continued, that of privatization, patents and intellectual property. GMOs can be copyrighted and the big companies have done so. That means that if an independent researcher is interested in studying one of the GMOs, he needs to ask for permission from the company and to share the results with the company, she said.
That essentially adds up to scientific censorship through copyright law, Ozeki charged. The big corporations also silence investigative journalism by strategic libel lawsuits against journalists, she said.
"Nature is open source, not copyrighted. With genetic engineering, you cannot recall a defective product. The solution is polyculture [like in nature]. We must embrace a diverse, chaotic, anarchic solution," and give up this attempt at control, she concluded.
Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon opened the conference by saying that his ministry has focused on encouraging environmentally sound farming practices and will continue to do so.
The conference, called "Food for Thought: The First Food and Sustainability Conference" was sponsored by the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura.
Heschel Center Academic Supervisor Dr. Lia Ettinger talked about food security in Israel during a series of 10-minute two-person panels.
"More than 1 billion people are starving around the world. That's one-in-six people on the planet. There has been a dramatic rise in health-related illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Food is not a commodity, but that's how food is presented," she said.
Ettinger outlined four criteria for food security and environmentally safe agriculture - healthy food, durable food, more people making a living from agriculture and sustainable farming practices.
"The political question is: What is the percentage of farmers that we need? In many countries, including Israel, a very small percentage of the populace are farmers. Is that the way it should be?
"Agriculture should also mimic biology and be polycultural. [Monoculture industrial agriculture relies on more machines and fewer people - E.Z.W.] That demands more manpower, but many people are unemployed and could use the work," she said.
"What will increase the number of farmers in Israel? [Nothing short of] a renaissance, and you can be a partner to it," she challenged the crowd.
Ma'ariv environmental columnist Aviv Lavi also challenged environmental groups to start talking about food issues and raising awareness. "Right now, food issues are talked about as health or economic issues rather than environmental ones," he said.
This discourse was almost totally absent in Israel and since "it takes about a decade and sometimes two to go from talking about it to action and change, we need to start now." Lavi said.
Highlighting in an amusing manner the changes in eating habits that Israelis have undergone but pointing to deep and troubling issues, journalist Tamara Traubman delved into the disappearance of the Israeli breakfast.
"Where has the Israeli breakfast disappeared to? The Israeli breakfast used to be cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, bread and other natural ingredients. These days, 87 percent of people eat corn flakes for breakfast. The rest drink liquid yogurt on the go," she said.
Traubman attributed the change to the entry of more women into the workforce, which leaves them less time to prepare food.
Longer hours and lower salaries in general have led to a circle of exploitation as well - exploitation of people and of natural resources.
"Government subsidies for corn and soy produced monocultures that kept an unprofitable enterprise afloat as well," she said.
Furthermore, "there has been a cultural shift in how we understand what food is: Is it our culinary tradition? Who decides for us - industry or ourselves?" she asked.
The conference also featured mini-panels focusing on fair trade and food justice, climate change and food, sustainable agriculture and political vegetarianism.
At the fair trade mini-panel, it was pointed out that 3% of the lower strata of society could not afford to feed their children according to the minimal health standards of the Health Ministry.
Fair trade attempts to stop the exploitation cycle that Traubman referred to, by enabling people to make a respectable living as producers. There are only a handful of fair-trade domestic goods in Israel, but there has been growing interest on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, panelists said.
Since fair trade was in its infancy in Israel, as opposed to the rest of the world, it was still subject to the shocks of the market and other factors.
Green Action head Avi Levy described a Palestinian olive grower who was forced to hew rocks instead this year because the olive harvest had been particularly poor. In previous years, Green Action had worked with him to sell his olive oil at fair-trade prices.
With food issues beginning to abound as a result of climate degradation, the conference provided many initial peeks into what could become a lively debate in Israel about what comes to your plate - and how.