Sydney Brown

Eating Away at the Planet

July 15, 2021

Most are unaware of the connection between what we eat and the growing effects of climate change. Could the farm-to-table movement set a new sustainable standard for food production and accessibility in Israel?

Nowadays, you can get anything you want whenever you want it, and that certainly applies to food. It probably comes as no surprise to most people that virtually all types of food are readily accessible year-round. This is because food today is produced in mass quantities whether its fruits, vegetables, or meat for the purposes of satisfying rising demand. But with over 7.8 billion people currently living on the planet, meeting that demand requires a proportionate space for agriculture, which our planet is running out of. Ever since the onset of the 1960s Green Revolution and its monetization of modern agriculture, developers have clung to dominant monocultural and land clearing practices to make more room for larger farm operations. 

But with a population of 9.5 billion people projected for 2050, researchers expect worldwide demand for agriculture products to increase by 50% and suggest upwards of 2.1 billion additional acres of land (an area roughly the size of Brazil) would need to be cultivated and converted to agriculture. In the absence of available land, developers are tapping into forested areas for sources of arable land, prompting outlandish rates of deforestation, which the tropics have fallen prime victim to–an area that contains more than 40% of the world’s 4 billion hectares of forests. In fact, in the tropics conventional agriculture is responsible for more than 80% of deforestation, and between 1980 and 2000, over half of the new agricultural land (55%) came from intact forests while additional 28% came from disturbed forests. 

Annually drastic forest and tree losses in the tropics have dismantled vitally important ecosystems, exacerbated the loss of biodiversity, and rendered the Earth less capable of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Combined with rising urbanization and the ongoing reliance on the fossil fuel industry, more greenhouse gases (GHGs) are disproportionately pumped into the atmosphere than are being naturally absorbed, thereby accelerating the rate of global warming and climate change. 

One of these emission sources originates from the livestock sector of the agriculture industry, which is shockingly the second highest emitting source of GHGs behind the burning fossil fuels for electricity generation. Specifically, the livestock industry’s operations are responsible for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, the same amount shared by the entire transportation sector. Although small scale farms are less environmentally problematic, the bulk of meat production comes from factory farming, a system that packs large numbers of animals–notably cows–into concentrated and confined spaces. Because livestock release methane during their digestive processes, factory farms serve as concentrated sources of methane gas emissions, which are 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period in the atmosphere. In the US alone, livestock methane emissions totaled the equivalent of 164.3 million metric tons of CO₂ in 2014 alone. 

Plant-Based Power

But with a population of 9.5 billion people projected for 2050, researchers expect worldwide demand for agriculture products to increase by 50%. Photo courtesy of Opa.

By contrast, growing and eating more plant-based foods than meat products and encouraging sustainable food practices are simple ways to alleviate some of global warming stresses on the planet. Not only do plants require significantly less land than meat production, but buying and eating locally allows for food to be transported shorter distances, normally referred to as food miles. In the U.S, produce alone, on average, food travels 1,518 miles (around 2,400 kilometers) before reaching supermarkets, emitting 4-17 times more CO₂ than local transportation. Although studies show that the GHG emissions from long-distance transportation in the US dwarf in comparison to food production phases, countries that import food products such as grains, like Israel, are much farther away and often require transportation via shipping vessels, which are responsible for more than 3% of global CO₂ emissions

Locally grown foods and its emphasis on plant-based diets have a smaller carbon footprint on the planet, and farm-to-table methods establish a direct relationship between the farmer and the buyer or restaurant, generating more awareness among consumers regarding how their food is produced. 

The farm-to-table movement promotes growing and eating locally sourced food to reduce the carbon footprint that notoriously accompanies conventional food distribution chains. Not only does the environment benefit from avoiding concentrated and excessive GHG emissions, but food’s close proximity to consumers is simply more nutritious. The longer it takes for produce, for example, to get to your plate the less nutritious value it has because plant-based food essentially starts to die once it’s harvested. 

Israel is proving to be an increasingly environmentally sustainable country, producing 95% of its own produce necessities, and the city of Tel Aviv is no exception. Tel Aviv hosts an abundance of sustainable food companies, a rising number of organic farming techniques and restaurants dedicated to strengthening the link between ethically grown food and its consumption. Farmers markets and community gardens usually uphold the farm-to-table culture, and there are 27 active community gardens solely in the Tel Aviv area where many restaurants and sustainable food companies have implemented their own rooftop gardens and urban farms. 

Vegan Abundance

Locally grown foods and its emphasis on plant-based diets have a smaller carbon footprint on the planet. Photo courtesy of Opa.

Opa, a contemporary vegan restaurant in South Tel Aviv run by chef Shirel Berger, emphasizes the importance of celebrating plant foods while also prioritizing local and seasonal ingredients and produce. She sources the restaurant’s ingredients from both their rooftop garden and local farms, exemplifying the emerging sustainable food scene blossoming in Israel. 

With highlighted items such as black koji magnolia peas with nectarine liquor, smoked oranges with celery vinegar, and sourdough fermented corn bread with walnuts, the menu at Opa is unique. Not only are the dishes creative and inspiring, but also sustainably made and environmentally conscious. 

Photo courtesy of Opa.

“When I went to school, I started learning about the food industries and how horrible they are,” said Berger. “Then after working at ABC Kitchen in New York City and being exposed to the farm-to-table movement, I started to understand my responsibility in helping to make the world a better place as a chef, as a cook, and as a person.” 

After acknowledging the environmental consequences brought on by conventional food systems, Berger emphasized the tangible changes people can make through their food choices alone to gradually alleviate such pressures.  

Chef Shirel Berger. Photo courtesy of Opa.

“When we present our food to the table we explain where it came from and how the ingredients were sourced. Our restaurant is currently about 95% organic and if it’s not organic it’s at least local and the best quality we can find,” she says.

“The agriculture here in Israel is very unique and strong, and I think that we’re seeing more small organic farms emerging, but it’s certainly not mainstream yet,” Berger explained. She described how there has been a push within Tel Aviv to use what’s local, and at Opa, they attempt to optimize that message. 

Photo courtesy of Opa.

Another notable plant-based restaurant located in Tel Aviv is Cafe Anastasia founded by Roi Ezer and Tamar Ayalon who became vegan in 2012 after being exposed to the advantages of eating plant-based diets. Cafe Anastasia was the first vegan cafe in Tel Aviv and strays from sugars and white flours which result in more healthful and enriched food products. 

Like Opa, a main goal of the vegan cafe is to show customers that food can be delicious, exciting, and reasonably priced without compromising personal and environmental health. One interesting aspect of the cafe is its vegan cheese products, all made from raw plant-based ingredients packed with high nutritional values and significantly lower carbon emissions than traditional dairy cheese. Similar to beef and other kinds of meat production, the production of dairy also prompts extensive land clearing for farm facilities as well as excessive natural resource use. Therefore, a widespread diet shift like this would drastically reduce the need for such practices and thus lessening agriculture’s impact on the environment.

Education is Key  

A selection of hydroponically-grown microgreens. Photo courtesy of The Soilless Magician.

But what good are any of these farm business models, if the general public is not made aware of these efforts? Initiatives like farm-to-table and urban farming need the support of the public in order for them to yield significant and long-lasting impacts. Without informed exposure to the big picture problems and the solutions that are within reach, most people will default to supporting establishments that procure food through conventional means without being aware of the issues they are perpetuating. 

As is the case with solving most environmental challenges, education is often the key to solidifying a solution’s place in society. Luckily, many educational initiatives are underway around the world and Tel Aviv is no stranger to such programs. Well known in Tel Aviv is Dizengoff Center’s urban green rooftop program where participants can engage in educational workshops and tours about sustainable growing techniques and the importance of modern urban farming. 

With problematic food production and food waste on the rise, companies are even stepping up, building whole business models designed to holistically tackle the problem. The Soilless Magician, a boutique urban farm growing and selling microgreens using hydroponic and aeroponic techniques, is one such Israeli company providing educational services about food sustainability. 

“Producing a sustainable product is important because of many reasons, but the biggest one is that our world is going to a bad place,” says Soilless Magician founder and CEO, Ofir Maoz. “By switching to a food system that disrupts the old non-sustainable ways and bringing in a fresh view with cheaper and healthier produce for better food, everybody wins.” Their microgreens are sold among different Tel Aviv farmers markets and nearby restaurants, and they promote their varieties of microgreens on social media for informative purposes. 

Photo courtesy of The Soilless Magician.

Although these restaurants and companies are shifting Israel’s culture around food production and accessibility, this is only the first of many steps to improve food sustainability. Israel presently has a high volume of food waste issues costing the economy more than 3 billion NIS every year. Promoting farm-to-table habits and cultivating plants through sustainable methods like hydroponic and aeroponic systems may set a new standard and enable a larger behavioral shift to mitigate the pressures current agriculture places on the environment as a whole. 

This ZAVIT Article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 13 Jul. 2021