Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word
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Let them eat dates

When the world runs out of wheat for challah, pita, rugelach, and more, we're going to wish we'd set up back-up crops
A wheat field. (Allan Mustard via Wikimedia Commons)
A wheat field. (Allan Mustard via Wikimedia Commons)

Can we put aside judicial reform for a moment and discuss something a bit more basic: That is, can we talk about wheat? Even more than chicken (and we in Israel are the world’s top chicken consumers), it is wheat that fuels us. Deeply embedded in our cultures are the tastes of warm challah spread with honey, pita dipped in olive oil and zaatar. We offer guests rugelach and date rolls and eat doughy bourekas and jachnun for Saturday brunch.

Can we imagine our world without wheat? The alarm bells are faint and still far off, but we would do well to listen. The New York Times reported last week that this year’s extreme weather – drought and then flooding – left Kansas with a much smaller-than-usual wheat crop. At the same time, Russia has cut off the flow of wheat from Ukraine, overturning the world’s biggest breadbasket. Global stores provide a cushion, but they may also be providing a false sense of security.

Of course, crops fail every day. But crop failure due to such unpredictable, wildly variable weather is a novel disorder, akin to COVID in March, 2020. Are the alarm bells ringing a tad louder?

We’re not feeling it yet in Israel. The price of bread has remained relatively stable, even as the price of a full grocery cart has gone for a steep uphill run. We pay more for imported pastas and cookies, but that cost is buried within the high price of practically all our necessities. We can take our pick of blames: supply chains, the war in Ukraine, global instability, our own follies here at home.

Once upon a time, nearly every kibbutz and moshav in Israel grew wheat, along with cotton or sunflowers. The wheat was a form of security – ensuring the country did not have to rely on others for its daily bread. Nowadays, growing enough wheat for the county’s explosive population would be impossible, and the wheat is as likely to be turned into animal feed as it is to be ground into flour. Our Friday challah and weekday pita originate in Switzerland, Bulgaria and the Netherlands.

That is, we are not immune to the forces shaping global agriculture, including those that threaten our most basic foodstuffs. The drought and rains that destroyed the Kansas wheat crop may have been a combination of El Nino weather patterns and climate change. But one of the effects of climate change seems to be more frequent El Ninos, and we could be facing a future of annual crop-destroying heat waves and unseasonably intense rains.

The effects of the war in Ukraine, grinding into its second year, will be felt for years after it finally grinds to a halt. A trade war between the US and China could mean further destabilization of food supplies around the world. While wheat stocks diminished, India announced a ban on the export of white non-basmati rice, in an effort to lower the price of this basic grain within the county. The rice shortage in this major rice exporter was due to El Nino flooding in Pakistan. Even more than wheat, rice shortages could lead to global hunger.

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If we could just stop waving flags and blowing horns for a minute, if we could stop digging ourselves a hole and throwing ourselves, lemming-like, over the edge, Israel could be part of the solution, rather than a rag-tag end of the problem. Unfortunately, our government policies seem to be heading us off in the opposite direction.

As environmentalists have always reminded us, the solutions must be both global and local.

Globally, Israel has been on the forefront of research that could help feed people in a heating world. Even before it was a state, Israel was strong in the fields of agricultural and environmental science. But today’s policies are encouraging the brightest young researchers to emigrate, and research institutes may soon find themselves targets of academic boycotts. Scientific research is no longer a funding priority, Torah study is where the money’s at. The Israel of yesteryear was uniquely positioned to address issues like post-climate change agriculture, with a number of excellent labs devoted to crops (including wheat), far-ranging collaborations with other scientists around the world, and the ability to work with the sort of genetic modifications that will be needed if we are to continue to feed the world. Tomorrow’s Israel? Not so clear.

Locally, our governments have been cutting support for agriculture for years. It was the previous minister of finance, Avigdor Liberman, who pried open the door to imports for milk products. This minister simply kicked the door open all the way, allowing milk to be imported as well. It’s a downward spiral that encourages farmers to sell up to real estate developers.

Even as it is becoming clear that it will take a global effort to overcome the effects of climate change, we are seeing a rise in protectionism. Globalized agriculture, based on migrant labor and heavily-polluting, long-distance shipping, is a broken system that no one quite knows how to fix. Within the scenario of increasing food insecurity and expanding room for screw-ups in our global supply chains, we should be thinking, as the saying goes, locally. That is, rather than killing agriculture, we should be ensuring we always have a back-up. Winter wheat, olives and dates, almonds, tomatoes and cucumbers. Goats and camels for milk. The country should be paying farmers to produce these, to plant annual crops in such a way that even if part of a crop fails, some of it will not; and it should be funding research into protecting the very crops that have survived in our hot climate for thousands of years.

Speaking very locally – from my own kibbutz – the El Nino weather that harmed the crops in Kansas and Pakistan was very good to our own wheat fields. The cotton has made a comeback through the Israeli innovations of drip irrigation and waste water treatment for irrigation. Though some parts of my vegetable garden have switched over to survival mode, my chilis are loving every degree of heat our climate can throw at them (and yes, chilis, along with coffee beans, are basic foodstuffs). I’m still surrounded by birds and bees. That is, from my vantage point, at least, there is still time to make the effort to save our food crops. We might even be able to salvage wheat.

So can we just stop making noise for one short minute, and listen to the distant sounds of global food hoards being plundered, dumped or locked away? And when you hear the alarm, walk, don’t run, to your nearest local farm stand.

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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