by Scott Lewis, Ph.D.
~When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. (Deuteronomy 20:19)
The mitzvah of Bal Taschit, do not waste, helps frame Jewish environmental concerns. While most Jewish environmental activists recognize the importance of Bal Taschit for prohibiting wasting energy and polluting the earth, we might easily overlook the commandment’s important connections to Food Waste.
Our sages understood this link. The Rambam, for example, pointed out that the Biblical passage was not limited to wartime actions:
And not only trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothing, wrecks that which is built up, stops fountains, or wastes food in a destructive manner, transgresses the commandment of Bal Taschit… (Maimonides, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive Commandment #6)
About 30-40% of food that is produced is thrown away, a shocking figure in the face of worldwide suffering due to malnutrition and starvation. The scale of Food Waste also has global environmental implications. Clearly, we are squandering the energy that goes into the production and transportation of food that is later thrown away. But did you know that when Food Waste is buried in landfills, it creates significant quantities of greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change? The author of the book Drawdown enumerates the top solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and lists the reduction of Food Waste as its third most important solution, stating, “Ranked with countries, food would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, right behind the United States and China.” (p. 42)
Much of the Food Waste in the U.S. occurs after the food has been delivered to retailers. Stores often throw away any “ugly fruit,” thinking that a bruise may make it unacceptable to consumers, and they toss food items based on the “freshness” date, even though many foods remain edible long past those dates.
Surprisingly, the amount of food that we consumers throw away may be greater than waste at the retail level. Some of us forget to use what we’ve purchased, bury it in the freezer, or simply purchase too much to use in the first place and it spoils.
I find myself guilty of being part of this problem. So this year, my teshuvah will include reflecting on my food waste sins: the spaghetti sauce I left on the stove, the pickles languishing in the back of the fridge, and the beautiful Russian black bread that hardened into a brick before I could enjoy it. My teshuvah will also include a vow to do a better job of following the Bal Taschit mitzvah, especially as it applies to food.
Dr. Scott Lewis is a science and environmental educator and community instigator living in South Florida. His professional interests include project-based approach to science education, the interaction of culture and cognition, and electronic learning. Scott is involved in several community volunteer projects including exploring the impacts of Sea Level Rise and supporting efforts to grow environmentally responsible, fairly produced, delicious food.