Evonne Marzouk & R Yonatan Neril /The Torah teaches us to choose life. The decisions we make must enhance our ability (and the ability of others) to live in this world as healthy physical and spiritual beings. The Sages throughout the generations internalized this concept very deeply both in the way they lived their own lives and in the way they guided others to live. In this article, we will explore the Jewish value of protecting our health, and how these lessons can guide us in our complex world, particularly in relation to one health challenge: our modern use of pesticides. The Jewish tradition places a strong value on being healthy. The Torah states, “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” and “You shall guard yourselves very well.” What does the Torah mean when we are commanded to “guard ourselves” and to “guard our souls”? The Sages explain that these verses refer to the mitzvah (commandment) of protecting one’s physical health.

Guard Yourselves Very Well

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Guest post by Evonne Marzouk and Rabbi Yonatan Neril

Published in conjunction with Canfei Nesharim. This material was produced as part of the Jewcology project. Jewcology.com is a new web portal for the global Jewish environmental community. Thanks to the ROI community for their generous support, which made the Jewcology project possible.

Brief sections of this article are taken with permission for “The Torah of Organics” by Rabbi Akiva Gersh, online at www.canfeinesharim.org. Some footnotes are taken with permission from an expansive article by Rabbi Zecharya Goldman on Jewish legal perspectives on conventional (non-organic) produce entitled “Is one obligated by Halakha to eat organic food?” The article is available from the author in the e-book “Judaism and the New Age: Halakhic Perspectives.” Rabbi Goldman is the founder and CEO of EarthKosher, a kosher certifying agency.

Evonne Marzouk is the founder and executive director of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah. She is also the leader of the Jewcology project.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs Jewish Eco Seminars, which engages and educates the Jewish community with Jewish environmental wisdom. Since 2006, he has worked with Canfei Nesharim in developing educational resources relating to Judaism and the environment.

The Torah teaches us to choose life.[1] The decisions we make must enhance our ability (and the ability of others) to live in this world as healthy physical and spiritual beings. The Sages throughout the generations internalized this concept very deeply both in the way they lived their own lives and in the way they guided others to live. In this article, we will explore the Jewish value of protecting our health, and how these lessons can guide us in our complex world, particularly in relation to one health challenge: our modern use of pesticides.

The Jewish tradition places a strong value on being healthy. The Torah states, “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much”[2] and “You shall guard yourselves very well.”[3] What does the Torah mean when we are commanded to “guard ourselves” and to “guard our souls”? The Sages explain that these verses refer to the mitzvah (commandment) of protecting one’s physical health.

G-d cares a great deal about how we treat our bodies. The body was given to us as a vessel whose primary function is to house the soul so that the soul can dwell in this world and fulfill its purpose. Maimonides (Spain, 1135-1204) explains this obligation as that one needs to distance oneself from things that might damage one’s body, and accustom oneself to a healthy lifestyle, because it is not possible to understand the ways of G-d when one is sick.[4] Elsewhere, he explains that there is a positive commandment to remove any potentially lethal hazard, and to be extremely careful to protect one’s health. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 11:4)

According to the Sefer HaChinuch (Spain, 13th century), it is our responsibility to guard against natural occurrences which may harm our bodies – not only things that can end a person’s life but also things that can damage a person’s body.[5]

This commandment is codified in the Shulchan Aruch,[6] the primary compilation of Jewish law (Rabbi Yosef Caro, Israel, 1488-1575). It states that we should avoid “any matter that threatens human life… to remove it and to guard against it and to be very careful about the matter.” The Shulchan Aruch cites another Torah verse, “do not place blood” (Deuteronomy 22:8), to enjoin us to remove any danger we might cause to ourselves or others. For example, the Shulchan Aruch includes “not placing one’s mouth on a flowing pipe and drinking, not drinking at night from wells and ponds, lest one swallow a leech and not see it…” as examples of being careful to protect one’s health.[7] These lessons demonstrate the exceedingly high importance that Jewish tradition places on preserving our lives and protecting our health.

There are many applications of the commandment to “guard yourself and guard your soul.” One relevant item for all of us and our families is the reduction of exposure to chemicals such as pesticides.

Pesticides: Agricultural Necessity or Health Threat?

Jewish law employs a term–Ba’al Nefesh Yachmir, or “A master of the spirit will be stringent”–when a sage senses a cause for concern but does not find it appropriate to forbid something to the public. As one modern scholar notes, this category in Jewish law may be a fitting response in modern society to a specific potential danger: the danger posed by pesticides.[8]

After Adam eats from the forbidden fruit, G-d says to him, “Cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life.”[9] On this Rashi comments: “It will bring up cursed things for you, such as flies, fleas, and ants.” The following verse states, “And it will cause thorns and thistles to grow for you.”

The Torah makes clear that the agricultural efforts of humans will be complicated by pests and weeds, which compete against the crops humans are trying to cultivate. For thousands of years, humans have been trying to battle this reality. In the past fifty years, synthetic pesticides have been used to kill or deter crop-destroying pests. These pesticides have provided tangible benefits to human society, as well as a number of significant impacts on human health.

By definition, pesticides are toxic. They are designed to kill, repel or inhibit the growth of living organisms.[10] Used against insects, mammals, plants, fungi, nematodes and other creatures, they are intended to reduce problems caused by these creatures in agriculture, public health, or homes, schools, buildings and communities.[11] Pesticides are also harmful to human health, causing an estimated one million to five million cases of pesticide poisonings every year, with 20,000 deaths among agricultural workers.[12]

Since the 1960s, the use of pesticides has grown exponentially, in part due to the industrial production of pesticides and their spread throughout the world, and in part due to the expansion of agriculture to newly-cultivated areas in this period. In 2006 and 2007, the world used approximately 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides.[13] The United States used 22% of the world total, at approximately 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides.[14]

Humans today benefit in significant ways from the use of pesticides. In many circumstances, pesticides are the only effective means of controlling disease organisms, weeds, or insect pests. Consumers benefit from pesticides through wider selections and lower prices for food and clothing. Pesticides also play an important role in protecting homes and businesses from termite infestations, and prevent the outbreak of disease by controlling rodents and insects.[15] The general public also benefits in important ways from the use of pesticides for the control of insect-borne diseases and illnesses, such as malaria.[16]

Unfortunately, the widespread use of pesticides, sometimes in indiscriminate ways, also leads to a number of negative effects. For example, pesticide poisoning can result from a single or short-term exposure, causing death. There are also risks of chronic impacts to human beings from long-term exposure to pesticides, including pesticide residues in food. When pesticide residues enter streams or groundwater, natural resources can be degraded, and pesticides that drift from where they are applied can harm or kill other plants, birds, fish, or other wildlife.[17]

Humans are exposed to pesticides in multiple ways, including through residues in drinking water and foods, and by touching areas sprayed with pesticides. Pesticides are applied to crops as well as lawns and vegetation in residential and commercial areas. With regard to groundwater taken from public wells in the United States, approximately 90 million Americans rely on groundwater for drinking water,[18] and some of that water is drawn from public wells and contains pesticide residue.[19] A study from the US Geological Survey found that “one or more pesticide compounds were detected at concentrations greater than benchmarks in about 3 percent of source-water samples from public wells.”[20]

Scientific studies have shown that pesticides contribute to a variety of health effects in people. A study of 200 pesticides found that several exhibited endocrine-disrupting potential,[21] meaning they negatively affect the endocrine system. The American Medical Association recommends limiting exposure to pesticides and using safer alternatives, concluding that:

Current surveillance systems are inadequate to characterize potential exposure problems related either to pesticide usage or pesticide-related illnesses. Considering these data gaps, it is prudent for homeowners, farmers, and workers to limit pesticide exposures to themselves and others, and to consider the use of the least toxic chemical pesticides or nonchemical alternatives.[22]

More recently, a report in AmedNews, a publication of the American Medical Association, cited a report in Pediatrics indicating that pesticides may increase the risk of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder in children.[23]

The US Environmental Protection Agency writes that “Long-term exposure to pesticides may cause serious health effects such as birth defects, learning disabilities, organ damage, and forms of cancer, including leukemia, breast cancer, and brain tumors.”[24] In addition, pesticides are one form of endocrine disruptors that are believed to be partially responsible for the decrease in the age of onset of puberty in children around the world.[25]

Children are exposed to pesticides in a range of ways, including by ingesting food and touching areas at home or school sprayed with pesticides.[26] Children face more significant exposure risks from pesticides than adults, because they behave and play differently than adults. For example, children play closer to the ground, and may be exposed to pesticides in dust and soil due to normal “hand-to-mouth” activity in small children. In addition, because children have different metabolisms than adults, their bodies have different capacities for breaking down or metabolizing, excreting, activating or deactivating pesticides. These processes change dramatically throughout a child’s journey to adulthood. As a result, pesticides may have more toxic effects in children, or lead to different symptoms from pesticide effects.[27]

Protecting Ourselves and Our Children

Pesticides play an important role in our ability to manage disease vectors and grow food. However, they also present real risks to our health. Given Jewish tradition’s emphasis on “guarding our health very well,” how can we protect ourselves and our families from pesticides?[28]

One thing we can do is reduce sources of pesticide exposures to our children (in food, water, dust, and soil and in the home and the work environment). For example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a Shoppers’ Guide to Pesticides in Produce which can help you identify healthy food for your family.[29],[30]

If you are considering supporting a local farm, for example, through Community Supported Agriculture, choose a farm that uses Organic or Integrated Pest Management (IPM) methods to reduce pesticide use. IPM practices utilize a range of pest management strategies, including alternatives like natural predators and parasites, and selective use of pesticides when necessary.

If you use pesticides in your home, keep them out of children’s reach and store them in containers that do not resemble those used for food or drinks, and ensure they are properly labeled with childproof lids. Do not store any highly toxic pesticides in your home. When you use pesticides (for example to control pests in your own home), strictly follow the instructions.

Children spend a significant amount of their time in school. We can create a safe learning environment by encouraging school administrators to adopt better pest management policies in schools, to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides as well as eliminate pests. The Environmental Protection Agency encourages school officials to adopt IPM practices and provides a step-by-step guide for doing so.[31]

In a recent landmark ruling, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote about the health-related concern from pesticides, stating that eating “bug-free” leafy vegetables poses a health risk due to their increased use. The halachic (Jewish legal) ruling was issued following lab tests conducted on such crops, and recommends that the public purchase regular leafy vegetables and clean them “in the old-fashioned way.”[32] This ruling casts a new light on the mitzvah to protect our health.

Examining pesticides and their effects through the lens of the commandment to “guard yourself and your soul” is just one example of how Jewish teachings can apply to health. By becoming more conscious of our Jewish obligation to protect our health, we can also learn to live in a way that protects the land and sustains our resources for the long term. Let us become more healthy in body and soul, and in so doing, create a healthier world.

[1] Deuteronomy 30:19
[2] Deuteronomy 4:9
[3] Ibid. 4:15
[4] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:1
[5] Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 546, of putting a fence on one’s roof
[6] Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Caro, Israel, 1488-1575, Choshen Mishpat 427, 8-10.
[7] Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 427: 8-10
[8] “Judaism,” Op. cit. 3.
[9] Genesis 3:17
[10] In nature, of course, there are no pests. Human beings consider certain plants or animals that endanger our food supply, health, comfort, or aesthetic sense as pests, and to manage these pests we have created “pesticides.” This excellent point is made by Keith S. Delaplane, Assistant Professor of Entomology, Cooperative Extension Service, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia in
“Pesticide Usage in the United States: History, Benefits, Risks, and Trends” printed March 1996, available online at link (PDF).
[11] Childhood Pesticide Poisoning. Published in May 2004 by the Chemicals Programme of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP Chemicals) with the assistance of UNEP’s Information Unit for Conventions. Available online at link (PDF).
[12] Ibid.
[13] “Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 2006 and 2007 Market Estimates “ A. Grube et al, Biological and Economic Analysis Division, Office of Pesticide Programs, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention , U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
February 2011, online at link (PDF)
[14] Ibid.
[15] “Benefits of Pesticide Use,” Environmental Protection Agency, available at link.
[16] “The Use of DDT in malaria vector control,” WHO position statement, World Health Organization, 2011.Available online at link (PDF).
[17] “Risks of Pesticide Use,” Environmental Protection Agency, available at link.
[18] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water. “FACTIODS: Drinking Water and Ground Water Statistics for 2009,” The publication notes that “Seventy-eight percent of public water systems in the United States use ground water as their primary source, supplying drinking water to 30% of community water system users, or almost 90 million Americans.”
[19] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Drinking Water from Household Wells;” 2002 (PDF)
[20] Toccalino, P.L., Norman, J.E., and Hitt, K.J., 2010, “Quality of source water from public-supply wells in the United States, 1993–2007”: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5024, p. 209, online at link.
[21] Hiroyuki Kojima, Shinji Takeuchi and Tadanori Nagai; “Endocrine-disrupting Potential of Pesticides via Nuclear Receptors and Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor”, J. Health Sci., Vol. 56, pp.374-386 (2010).
[22] Educational and Informational Strategies for Reducing Pesticide Risks, 1994 Interim Meeting of the American Medical Association, Reports of the Council on Scientific Affairs, p. 7, available online at link (PDF).
[23] “Pesticides may increase risk of ADHD in children,” AmedNews, posted May 31, 2010, available online at link.
[24] “Pesticides and Their Impact on Children: Key Facts and Talking Points,” US EPA publication, online at link (PDF).
[25] “Effects of Environmental Endocrine Disruptors on Pubertal Development,” Samim Özen, J Clin Res Pediatr Endocrinol. 2011 March; 3(1): 1–6. Published online 2011 February 23. doi:  10.4274/jcrpe.v3i1.01
[26] Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, the United States National Research Council, 1993, as cited in the EPA Publication “Protecting Children’s Health: The National Pesticide Program.” The National Research Council publication cited the following reasons for why children are different than adults in regards to pesticide exposure: 1) Children’s metabolic rates are more rapid 2) Children process toxicants differently 3) Children pass through critical developmental stages 4) Children consume more food in proportion to body size (as well as different types of food) 5) Children’s exposure patterns differ from adults’
[27] Childhood Pesticide Poisoning. Published in May 2004 by the Chemicals Programme of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP Chemicals) with the assistance of UNEP’s Information Unit for Conventions. Available online at link (PDF), p. 12.
[28] Many of the suggestions below are drawn from Childhood Pesticide Poisoning, p. 18-19.
[29] The website is available at www.ewg.org/foodnews.
[30] Please see the following Note from Canfei Nesharim’s Science and Technology Advisory Board for more context when thinking about preventing chemical and pesticide exposure to your children, link.
[31] This guide, along with many other helpful resources, is available at link.
[32] “Rabbi Amar: ‘Bug-free’ vegetables dangerous”, Ynet News, published 11/6/12. Article online at link.

About Yonatan Neril


  1. Every technology needs to be used carefully and the risks and benefits of proper use need to be evaluated. Unfortunately the numbers presented here need some context. If you follow the references, it appears that the millions of yearly poisonings and over 20,000 yearly deaths occur because of pesticide MISUSE. They occur in developing countries. This is like saying that cars are dangerous because thousands of crashes happen in places where there are bad roads.
    I am certainly in favor of very carefully looking at the benefits and downsides of the pesticides, taking care of our planet etc., but the data should be objective. Most everything can be dangerous when misused

  2. I love the quotes from: Rambam, Sefer HaChinuch, Shulchan Aruch and all the other quotes with exact sources.

  3. Parts of this article are quite misleading.

    As any toxicologist can tell you, every substance becomes harmful when administered at the ‘wrong’ concentration. Zinc, for example, is an essential mineral at the proper dose; above the advisable concentration it’s a toxic heavy metal.

    The article claims “By definition, pesticides are toxic.” But that isn’t true.

    Rather, “by definition” pesticides are toxic to certain organisms when applied in certain concentrations, depending on the particular pesticide and target organism.

    The blunt claim that “Pesticides are harmful to human health” is a half-truth if omitting discussion of how pesticides (and fertilizers) have unlocked a level of agricultural productivity, reliability and democratization that is unprecedented in recorded history.

    Pesticides, like zinc, are harmful to human health in the wrong concentrations. At proper exposure pesticides are the reason that *billions* of people, especially in non-arable and technologically backward countries, have any health to at all.

    They’re the reason people are able to eat. Anything. Full stop.

  4. Regarding the “estimated one million to five million cases of pesticide poisonings every year, with 20,000 deaths among agricultural workers”; 1 million to 5 million is a 400% margin of error. Are such figures reliable?

    What chemicals were involved in these incidents? Where and how did they occur? Were the chemicals utilized in accordance with safety instructions? Are “pesticides” to blame? Or perhaps the mishandling of particular pesticides in particular locations by particular people using particular procedures?

    Even the EPA “talking points” you link to note that pesticides “can severely harm children’s health if stored or used improperly.” That’s *im*properly. As opposed to properly.

    That distinction may be why the “talking points” also note that rodents and pests in a home – i.e. the reason people might use pesticides in the first place – significantly increase the likelihood of childhood asthma. A serious health problem of its own.

    Similarly, R. Amar rejects the “bug-free” vegetables in Israel because pesticides were being applied *im*properly and in *un*safe concentrations. As opposed to *proper* and *safe*.

    It’s true that “Since the 1960s, the use of pesticides has grown exponentially,” as has human exposure to them. And since the 1960s, life expectancy has increased dramatically in all regions of the world (see World Bank data).

    Does this indicate that pesticides are making the world more dangerous? Apparently not. Perhaps it means that pesticides are making the world safer? Hmmmm…. Correlation isn’t causation, but….

    I write at length because of my sense that articles of this type, here using the language of “Torah” and “Jewcology”, are susceptible to concealing half-baked analysis while advancing a biased view on certain fashionable social topics. (This time it’s a trendy ‘chemophobia’.)

    Such an approach misses the ‘derech eretz’, without which the Torah surely cannot fare much better…

  5. Worthwhile to bring the Maharsha and peshto shel mikra view that this pasuk refers to theological danger.

    Is this deOraita or Derabanan? RamBam calls for makat mardut but seems to bring a pasuk. See levush. HaRav Asher Weiss shlit”a (BCBM- vaetchanan) says this is a derabanan she-ikaro medioraita (e.g. bikur holim etc.)
    This is important discussion for cases of safeik…

    Is there a difference between imminent and long-term danger? I recall Rav Bleich in one of his masterful surveys quoting the Sh’ut Binyan Tzion that long range potantial danger is not included in the issur. Also Rav Haim Ozer had something to say on this

    Relevant gemarot- Nachum ish gamzu in the house that is going to fall, Rav Chanina ben dosa and dangerous animal, Mazik w/ 7 heads in abaye’s beit midrash in kidushin, mayim megulim

    Does Shomer petaim Hashem have any relevance here? 4 shitot

    שיטת רש”י – “שומר פתאים ה'” מפקיע את הסכנה וממילא לכולם מותר להסתכן ואזי אין היתר לעבור על איסורים.

    שיטת היש”ש – כמו שיטת רש”י אבל דווקא ביחס לפתאים. אולם מי שיודע את הבעיה ואינו בגדר פתי אין הכי נמי אין דין “שומר פתאים ה'”12 13.

    שיטת הריטב”א – “שומר פתאים ה'” לא מפקיע מהסכנה אבל מוריד את האיסור ולכן מי שחושש וראוי לחשוש (אע”פ שאין איסור) לא יסמוך על “שומר פתאים ה'”.

    שיטת תה”ד – “שומר פתאים ה'” לא מפקיע מהסכנה רק יוצר היתר להסתכן, אך צ”ע אם ההיתר קיים לת”ח שיודע ומכיר את הסכנה.

    From Olamot http://olamot.net/shiur/%D7%A9%D7%95%D7%9E%D7%A8-%D7%A4%D7%AA%D7%90%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%94
    גדר אחר בהיתר “שומר פתאים ה'”, ייסד בשו”ת שם אריה [6]. לדעתו כל דבר שהוא מנהגו של עולם, ודשו בו רבים והוא דרך הכרח, אין לחוש לספק סכנה, וסומכים על רחמי שמים. שהרי בכל הדרכים יש סכנה, וכן עצם הלידה היא סכנה – ואף על פי כן מותר, ואף חייבים לנהוג כדרך העולם למרות הסכנה. וזהו גם כן טעמם של חכמים בענין ג’ הנשים המשמשות כדרכן [ועי’ בסוף דבריו: “ויצא לנו מזה, דלפרוש לים הגדול כדי לשוטט בעולם הגדול ולראות דברים חדשים וכדומה, ראוי להרחיק מזה. וכן ללכת במדברות ולכנוס בשאר מקומות סכנה במקום שאין צורך והכרח, בודאי ראוי להרחיק]. וראה במש”כ הרב איסר יהודה אונטרמן [הרב הראשי לישראל] בשו”ת שבט מיהודה [7] בביאור גדר זה.
    וכעין דבריו מבואר גם במש”כ רבי אלחנן וסרמן [ראש ישיבת אהל תורה בברנוביץ’] בקובץ שיעורים [8] “דאין האדם חייב להימנע ממנהג דרך ארץ, וממילא הוי כאילו אין בידו לשמור את עצמו, ואז נשמר מן השמים. אבל היכא שבידו להיזהר אינו בכלל פתאים, ואם לא ישמור את עצמו הוא מתחייב בנפשו, ולא יהא משומר מן השמים”. ומבואר בדבריו, כי ‘שומר פתאים ה'” נאמר דווקא בדבר הרגיל והנהוג בעולם, כי אין אדם חייב להימנע ממנהג דרך ארץ. אבל במקום שבידו להיזהר, אינו בכלל זה.
    ומתוך דברים אלו בא הגרש”ז אויערבך [שו”ת מנחת שלמה [7]; וכן הובא בשמו בספר שמירת שבת כהלכה [7]] להגדרה מה נקרא ספק פיקוח נפש, ומה לא. וכתב: “דכל שדרך בני אדם לברוח מזה כבורח פני הסכנה, הרי זה חשיב כספק פיקוח נפש”. והיינו שהדבר תלוי בדעת בני אדם “דכל דבר שהעולם נוהגים לעשותו כן ולא לחוש, מותר לאדם לסמוך על “שומר פתאים ה'”, כי מה שקצרה יד האדם לדעת להיזהר ממנו, הקב”ה שומר עליו. ממילא דבר שהעולם חוששים לו משום סכנה, הרי הוא בגדר סכנה”. וראה תוספת ביאור בסברא זו במאמרו של הרב סילמן [11]].

  6. This is tendatious nonsense. Pesticides are a key reason why there is enough food worldwide to fee pretty much everyone. The harms from long-term pesticide exposure have never been proven. The harms from long-term food shortages are clear.

    The “science” cited in this post would not support an eighth grade science fair project. Water, like pesticides, can be fatal and/or cause brain damage, if the dose is too large. In fact, far more children die every year from over-exposure to water (aka “drowning”) in the U.S. than die from pesticides worldwide.

    How can you post something so utterly silly?

  7. Great article. Perhaps this is addressed in the longer version, but the fact is, pesticide-based agriculture is usually not necessary. Numerous studies show that organic agriculture has similar or even higher yields than pesticide-based agriculture (though labor costs are higher). Since pesticides are largely unnecessary, we should drastically reduce our use of them. This is not just about humans guarding ourselves — pesticide runoff into streams kills and otherwise injures animals (such as fish), and we are not allowed to cause unnecessary suffering to animals (tzaar baalei chayim.)

  8. “though labor costs are higher”

    Nice to put that into parenthesis. I imagine *anything* is impossible with enough money. And hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.

  9. Nachum: Happily, you’re mistaken! Here’s one relevant study. The labor costs are somewhat higher, but organic agriculture can still feed the world.

    Organic agriculture and the global
    food supply (Badgley et al 2007)

    The principal objections to organic agriculture contributing significantly to the global food supply are low yields and
    insufficient quantities of organically acceptable fertilizers. We compared yields of organic versus conventional or lowintensive food production for a global dataset of almost 300 examples and estimated the average yield ratio in 10 food
    categories for the developed and the developing world. We also estimated the amount of nitrogen potentially available
    from fixation by leguminous cover crops used as fertilizer from studies in tropical and temperate regions. For most food
    categories, the average yield ratio was slightly 1.0 for studies in the
    developing world. With the average yield ratios, we modeled the global food supply that could be grown organically on the
    current agricultural land base. Our estimates indicate that organic agriculture has the potential to produce enough food on
    a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population without increasing the agricultural land base. In addition,
    estimates of nitrogen fixation from leguminous cover are sufficient to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in
    use. These results indicate that organic agriculture could contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, thereby
    reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture. Here we present this analysis and discuss the
    changes needed to increase the contributions of organic agriculture to the global food supply.

  10. Put aside food for the moment. Do any of the skeptical commenters here believe there is no reason to encourage reducing pesticide use for non-food uses like in-home (or in-school) pest control and ornamental plants?

    Also, complaining about “improper” use being the cause of the injuries to agricultural workers misses the point. Do you think that low-wage farmworkers are making their own, informed choices about how much to protect themselves, or are there structural issues that encourage/allow employers to not provide adequate time or equipment to spray safely?

    Also, it’s strange to hear the chorus of “it’s never been proven harmful,” etc., when something is a known endocrine disruptor. It would seem wise not to dismiss out of hand possible ways to reduce exposure…

  11. With apologies to Gil, I don’t think this article belongs here. The “Jewish” part is unobjectionable but obvious: there is a halachic obligation to take care of ones body. How that applies to pesticide use, though, is, as shown by the comments, controversial. But that controversy is scientific and political in nature and has nothing to do with halacha or Judaism. There are many places to debate the pesticide use issue; Hirhurim should not be among them.

  12. Joseph Kaplan: I thought Modern/Centrist Orthodoxy is supposed to engage with and benefit from the best of contemporary Western thought (such as environmental science, the environmental movement, and sustainable agriculture), rather than completely ignoring them and pretending like they don’t exist. If we expect secular Jews to take Orthodox Judaism seriously, we can’t ignore trends in modern society such as environmentalism and the awareness of the dangers of certain aspects of our high-technology society.

    The dangers of pesticides and the viability of organic agriculture may be “controversial” to the degree that some anonymous commenters dismiss them out of hand. That’s not a reason to avoid the topic. There is considerable scientific evidence to support these concerns. The fact that some people (presumably those influenced by right-wing or anti-environmental ideologies) reflexively reject these matters as valid issues should be completely irrelevant to whether they should be discussed on a Centrist Orthodox blog.

  13. Of course we engage in the modern world. But both the post and the comments have nothing to do with Judaism or halacha which is supposed to be the focus of this blog (and almost always is). I’m not saying the issues are not important. Lots of issues are important: the election, the economy, etc. etc. etc. And we should discuss all of them in appropriate places. My only point was that the guts of the post and the guts of the comments aren’t Jewish; they could have been written by anyone of any religion or no religion who is concerned (or not concerned) about the issue of pesticides. But if you guys want to discuss environmentalism and pesticides, go ahead. Just don’t think it’s a Jewish conversation.

  14. Interesting that you posted this a few days after Mark Lynes, anti-GMO activist, made big news when he publicly recanted his position.

    Basically, upon review he realized that GMO and sophisticated use of pesticides and herbicides are a net benefit to both humans and the environment. Some money quotes:

    “So how much land worldwide was spared in the process thanks to these dramatic yield improvements, for which chemical inputs played a crucial role? The answer is 3 billion hectares, or the equivalent of two South Americas. There would have been no Amazon rainforest left today without this improvement in yields. Nor would there be any tigers in India or orang utans in Indonesia. That is why I don’t know why so many of those opposing the use of technology in agriculture call themselves environmentalists.”

    “If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. Like the Amish in Pennsylvania, who froze their technology with the horse and cart in 1850, the organic movement essentially freezes its technology in somewhere around 1950, and for no better reason.”

    “Thus desperately-needed agricultural innovation is being strangled by a suffocating avalanche of regulations which are not based on any rational scientific assessment of risk. The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food, but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food, because a vocal minority of people in rich countries want their meals to be what they consider natural.”

  15. Having lived in the UK for almost a decade recently, the anti-GM and Organic “movements” in the UK (and Europe) are very different than the American frame of reference. In fact, even putting those two issues together leads to misunderstanding the non-activist public consensus.

    I would argue the European bias against GM is actually more respectful of modern science than the “ya-hoo” view prevalent in America. The most critical issue being the law of unintended consequences.

  16. BTW, Mark Lynas’ change of views is not as recent as you portray. See, e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/oct/20/mark-lynas-green-movement

  17. @Emma:

    >>“Put aside food for the moment. Do any of the skeptical commenters here believe there is no reason to encourage reducing pesticide use for non-food uses like in-home (or in-school) pest control and ornamental plants?”

    Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Depends upon the reasons, the situation and the particular chemicals. As the authors’ linked EPA document notes, rodents and pests in the home (and presumably in school) can substantially increase the probability of developing asthma, and are a classic disease vector. Thoughtful people trade off projected risks and benefits against each other.

    To be certain, one doesn’t need 4½ pages of heavily footnoted sermon to be instructed to keep strong chemicals out of the reach of children — it already says so on every can of Lysol. Which is where it also informs us that “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.”

    Use chemicals safely. Minimize exposure to strong chemicals that may pose a safety risk. For this we need “divrei Torah”? Please. It’s cheapening.

  18. @Y

    >>“I thought Modern/Centrist Orthodoxy is supposed to engage with and benefit from the best of contemporary Western thought (such as environmental science, the environmental movement, and sustainable agriculture), rather than completely ignoring them and pretending like they don’t exist.”

    Environmental science is indeed a “science” just as physics or hydrology. By contrast “the environmental movement” and “sustainable agriculture” are not sciences, but ideological/spiritual movements based on a set of philosophical and moral assumptions. Do such assumptions really constitute “the best” of contemporary Western thought?

    For its part traditional Judaism has always existed within a field of competing ideologies– why should it be especially partial to adopting these latest ones?

    It’s obvious that a large proportion of the world’s population would starve to death or never exist without the nutritional bounty unlocked by modern pesticides and fertilizers.

    Meanwhile another substantial lump of humanity (heavily weighted towards women and children) would be relegated to a ‘professional’ life of digging up weeds with hand tools and wiping fungus off crops.

    It’s the very treasure of plenty unlocked by modern pesticides that gives comfortable Westerners the freedom and affluence to lobby for “organic” foods that cost several hundreds percent more than their “non-organic” equivalents.

    I support their ability to purchase foods that are consistent with their belief system; but it’s clearly a psychological / spiritual, and not scientific, motivation that drives some people to fear of a product whose dramatically expanded use and human consumption is concurrent with dramatically expanded human life expectancy, health and population.

    “If we expect secular Jews to take Orthodox Judaism seriously, we can’t ignore trends in modern society such as environmentalism…” … But we can surely find something more compelling to offer than trendy pseudoscience, no?

  19. STBO: You’re mistaken. It’s true that a large increase in production was achieved through artificial fertilizers and pesticides in the mid-20th century. However, since then organic methods have caught up, and many studies show organic agriculture to have better yields than “conventional” agriculture (though some studies show slightly reduced yields.) So it’s simply not true that sustainable agriculture is a vague ideology. It’s a science too, and it’s spreading around the world rapidly (including in the developing world — see American Jewish World Service’s agriculture project if you’re interested).

    Neither is it true that a large proportion of the workforce would have to return to physical drudgery to support a transition to organic agriculture. Organic agriculture requires more labor, but not many times as much as conventional ag. Right now, only about 1% of the U.S. workforce is engaged in agriculture; if organics become the norm, that wouldn’t increase to more than 2% or 3%. Many people find that they actually enjoy this work (in fact, conventional farmers about to abandon farming completely often feel enthusiastic about farming again when they switch to organic and are motivated to continue). We have an unemployment problem, and life in cubicles is not exactly satisfying for many people, so I don’t see the problem with a somewhat increased proportion of the workforce in agriculture.

  20. STBO, you also misunderstand the environmental movement. In truth, there is no one environmental movement, but rather a large number of distinct movements with different environmentally-related values and goals.

    To be sure, there are some small environmentally-inspired movements that are “spiritual” or “psychological” as you say and have no relevance for a Torah Jew, except perhaps to advocate against them, such as deep ecology, anarcho-primitivism, zero population (they want humanity to go extinct), and various forms of new age “earth spirituality.”

    However, the mainstream environmental movements — to reduce harmful pollution, preserve endangered species, protect poor and minority neighborhoods from bearing the brunt of toxic pollution (“environmental justice”), and promote cleaner technologies and practices — are readily cognizable in Torah terms (as Canfei Nesharim is very good at showing) and supported by science and reason.

    Sustainable agriculture is squarely in the latter category.

    The only partial exception is the tiny biodynamic agriculture movement, which is “spiritual” enough that some rabbis in Israel say that one should not buy their produce, presumably due to avodah zara concerns. But biodynamic agriculture probably accounts for less than 1% of global sustainable agriculture efforts.

  21. Ye’yasher kochakhem Mrs. Marzouk and R. Neril, as well as respondents.

    Without my commenting on the important substance of the issue at hand (-as I think all the authors and all the respondents advanced excellent cases [even if there is some disagreement between them, in the noble spirit of milchamtah shel Torah (as per the gemara in Sanhedrin 93b)], such that any comment on my part would be superfluous), I just want to observe – since the issue legitimately arose in the sagacious comments – that both R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik have recently been quoted as discouraging use of the term “Modern” Orthodox, instead encouraging us to employ the pure use of the term “Orthodox” in describing ourselves as Torah-fulfilling Jews, as follows.

    1) R. Feinstein, in the newly (and posthumously) published Vol. 9 of his Iggerot Mosheh, in Yoreh De’ah no. 27, discourages a Yeshiva from calling itself “modern”.

    2) Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, writing in Tradition 44:4 (Winter 2011), p. 7, states that “I use the term ‘religious community’ and not ‘Modern Orthodoxy,’ as the latter is a term that does not appear in the Rov’s writings and was not used in his oral discourses”.

  22. As the Chair of the Canfei Nesharim Science and Technology Advisory Board, it is my responsibility and that of the scientists who are members of this Board to ensure that all the scientific and technological information in articles published by the organization are accurate and up-to-date. Our Board is made up of Orthodox Jewish scientists with expertise in toxicology, climatology, engineering, oceanography, transportation, and public health. Using that professional experience and expertise, we review all articles and can assure our readers that no “junk science” is present in any of materials produced by Canfei Nesharim. The article produced for Hirhurim that focused on a Torah perspective of pesticide use is no exception.

    So, let’s very briefly review the range of critiques posted in response to the pesticide article. Let’s be clear—pesticides are, indeed, toxic and environmental science in general and toxicology specifically are not pseudosciences. It is true that even water (if it is pure and has no solutes dissolved in it) and oxygen can be toxic. But that is not the central issue here. These are molecules that are essential for life and organisms have evolved in ways that handle them effectively and safely. The issue is the human-created chemicals that subvert or mimic basic life process with the expressed aim to harm “pests”, those unwanted species that interfere with human life. As I teach my students, toxicology is an ARRTT. A chemical’s potential for harm is related to the Amount present, the Rate at which exposure to it occurs, Route of exposure (oral, dermal, etc.), Time of exposure and life stage examined, and the Type or class of chemicals to which it belongs, e.g., some chemicals accumulate in the body and therefore have the potential for long-term damage even if exposures are at very small levels. With this paradigm in mind, harm is no longer defined as just mortality. Scientists now understand that the sublethal effects of a toxicant are also devastating to individuals, families, and communities. In this light, it is critical to understand two recent advances in toxicology that do not bode well for human health. For a long time, we have assumed children would be more sensitive to toxic chemicals than adults. Not only have recent scientific advances confirmed this, e.g., organophosphate insecticides at concentrations found in the environment have been shown to cause brain abnormalities in children, but we now know that when children are exposed to even very small concentrations of a toxic chemical, that there may be life-long health issues which may not be displayed until much later in life. It gets worse. More and more, scientists are finding that exposure to one generation similarly affects the health of succeeding generations, i.e., the sins of the fathers do visit the children. Currently, these data are only for laboratory species but that these compounds do alter gene expression in humans in ways identical to those of the bioassay animals should give us pause as to the effects to which we may be condemning our children and grandchildren even if they are not exposed to those toxicants. These findings are hardly “eight grade science” projects but sophisticated, peer-reviewed findings that have been replicated in many laboratories worldwide.

    With these data, we are faced with some choices, choices that may or may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. It is clear that pesticide use must be decreased. The data are overwhelming as to their potential harm. The argument that without pesticide use the world will starve, while having a basis when alternative agriculture practices were not well worked out, has less power today. The large, monoculture farms are unlikely to switch to organic farming techniques any time soon. However, using such practices as Integrated Pest Management in which biological agents are used along with chemicals can greatly reduce the harm both to the environment and human health, even in the larger farm settings. The rise of sophisticated organic farming techniques demonstrates powerfully the utility of increased practice of this method. So, we have choices and that means we must balance risks and benefits. Risk management techniques do take into consideration how much food we can produce and how much disease we can control. They also consider how we do so safely. With this balancing act in mind, this article did not call for pesticide use to stop. It simply recognizes that given the Torah value of protecting our health, pesticides should be used cautiously and judiciously. This is an argument which we feel is supported by Torah and by science, and we appreciate this message being shared on Hirhurim where a Torah audience can consider it.

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