On May 25 not only will Jews celebrate receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai; on Shavu’ot we also celebrate the summer harvest and the freedom to express our Jewish identities through food. How we eat has long been at the core of Jewish celebration and ritual, values and ethics. And as each day brings more desperate news about climate change, we can look to this inherent Jewish tradition for real-world, tangible answers.
A recent study found high-income countries “could cut their agricultural emissions by two-thirds, simply by switching to plant-centered foods.” The beef and dairy industries are the most resource-intensive, environmentally destructive foods we cultivate, and they have a massive carbon footprint because meat and dairy producing animals release a tremendous amount of methane gas. Revising how we prioritize what we eat is so important that without major changes in how food is produced, the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement will not be met. But how do we realistically eat fewer animal products—which is exactly what the Earth is demanding of us?
A solution that’s becoming increasingly popular in Jewish homes and institutions is called “DefaultVeg.” It means centering a variety of plant-based food on our plates by default, and allowing people to opt in to adding animal-based foods to their meals. From a Saturday kiddush to the b’nai mitzvah buffet line, DefaultVeg means dominating with plant-based foods wherever food is served, while still preserving individual choice. This strategy has been proven to nudge diners toward eating more sustainable and healthier food choices, and eating less of the environmentally harmful foods that significantly contribute to climate change, as well as deforestation, and water overconsumption and contamination.
Many biblical and rabbinical teachings point to the need for environmental stewardship focused on animal and farmer well-being, equitable access to resources, and land regeneration (shmita), as well as limiting waste and consumption (bal tashchit). We find a host of ancient eco-values and teachings that translate beautifully into our modern context, inspiring one of the more prolific modern religious environmental movements. We even have our own “Earth Day.” Tu b’Shvat—the “birthday of the trees”—is widely regarded as a contemporary Jewish environmental holiday.
As a people we’re called to be thankful for the bounty of the earth, with the understanding that we are called to be caretakers rather than exploiters. Hundreds of Jewish leaders are heeding that call, pointing at factory farming of animals as incompatible with Jewish values. Factory farms have taken over animal production, including today’s billion dollar kosher animal industry (dairy, poultry, beef, and fish.) These industrial sites violate our commitment to protecting the Earth, as well as Judaism’s commitment to treating animals and workers humanely. Animals are raised in terrible, overcrowded conditions, stuffed with hormones and antibiotics just to survive until slaughter, and are no better off than their nonkosher counterparts, to the surprise of most people who assume kosher is equated with humane treatment. It is not.
Yet for all the celebrations, education, and creative ways we’ve taken action for the planet, leading Jewish organizations have yet to take fundamental action that will make a direct impact on climate change: reimagining our menus.
Umbrella organizations (e.g., Jewish Federations of North America, the JCC Association of North America, Hillel International) are committing to climate action plans through the newly formed Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition. Organizations like Jewish Earth Alliance, Dayenu, and now Adamah (formerly Hazon) laudably engage US Congress, Jewish communities, and large Jewish institutions on issues of climate and environmental protection. However, none have centered climate-friendly food policies.
If we are to make a substantive contribution to slowing and reversing the climate catastrophe, it’s impossible to ignore the massive animal agriculture system and the impacts of our institutional food choices.We are going up against Goliathan meat and dairy lobbies that, not unlike fossil fuel companies, spend billions to undercut climate policy. Thanks to a quietly passed 2019 rule, for example, the US now grants an exemption to factory farms from reporting their air pollution from animal waste.
The inconvenient truths about seemingly quintessential Jewish foods may not be enough to immediately shift our communal habits—and that’s okay for now. We understand that for firmly rooted emotional reasons, many don’t want to tackle changes to beloved foods that have been a regular part of Jewish food culture. Through “DefaultVeg” or “greener by default” strategies, food sustainability efforts can coexist with Jewish traditions. Meanwhile, the plant-based food business scene is seeing an expansive, more sustainable interpretation of everything from Ashkenazi Jewish delis to Sephardi- and Mizrahi-inspired cuisine, offering all of us even more smart choices.
The arc that links the exodus of Passover to receiving and accepting the Torah on Shavu’ot, reminds us that freedom of choice is part of what we celebrate in the covenantal moment of Shavu’ot. As we approach this formative time on the Jewish calendar, we need to become shomrei adamah, stewards of the Earth. We can do this year by making the choice to reset our table and set an example for other religious groups to follow suit. Three in four Americans have a religious affiliation; combating climate change is an opportunity for Judaism to lead by example.