Is “Gush Katif” Bug-Free Israeli Produce Safe to Eat?
Kosher With No Certificate, an article appearing online in Globes on June 19, 2014 and in the Sunday, June 22, 2014 Business & Finance section of The Jerusalem Post (where I saw it) answered a question that I’ve had for a while. (I wasn’t sure where to go for the answer, so I’m glad that the Globes’ Dafna Bramley Golan knew with whom to speak.) My question: “Did the producers of bug-free “Gush Katif” vegetables decrease the amount of pesticides used since it became known to the Rabbanut in 2012 that the means employed to render their produce “bug-free” was to use dangerously high levels of pesticides?”
The original “Gush Katif “ vegetables were grown in a special environment in Gush Katif, before the 2005 disengagement, so as to render them bug-free. After Israel left Gush Katif and the greenhouses to the Arab population, they were not able to replicate the bug-free produce that the Israelis grew.
In the article Palestinians Boot Jews, Now Ask Them for Help, by Aaron Klein of WND, Anita Tucker, a Gush Katif farmer discusses some of the techniques Gush Katif farmers used to produce their bug free vegetables :
Tucker explained she and other Katif farmers engineered agricultural technology specific to the dry, sandy Gaza conditions.
“We used different kinds of netting, also aluminum, since we knew the reflection of the sun kept bugs away,” she said. “We used colors because we knew certain kinds of bugs were attracted to or kept away from different colors. We used certain organic insecticides for certain plants, and were very strict about which chemicals we used. We kept our greenhouses as clean as possible. And we also had our own proprietary inventions and technology.”
This freed the kosher consumer from the tedious job of carefully washing and checking leafy greens and other vegetables that harbor insects, since they are not allowed to be eaten by those who observe kashrut laws. Buying vegetables labeled as “Gush Katif” simply meant that the vegetables needed to be soaked for a few minutes in water, preferably soapy water, rinsed off under running water, and could then be used without further checking. With the disengagement this production came to an end.
However, many vegetables have continued to be packaged and marketed as “Gush Katif” vegetables although they are not produced using the same methods as was done in Gush Katif. And it was the post-Katif production of “Katif” greens that created the pesticide problem.
Reactions from then Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and from the Rabbanut to this revelation of dangerous pesticide use were reported in Kosher With No Certificate. “[Rabbi Amar] said eating leafy greens grown in an insect-free environment posed a definite public health risk due to increase use of pesticides, and he recommended that the public buy regular vegetables and clean them themselves, like in the olden days. In so doing, Amar refuted the claim that it’s not possible to clean vegetables in a manner that does not cost so much money and necessitate the use of so many poisons.”
Regarding the Rabbanut, the article states, “Two years ago a joint Chief Rabbinate and Agriculture Ministry team was established, and the Chief Rabbinate suggested that an arrangement be reached through which the Chief Rabbinate would withhold kosher certification for growers who exceed a certain pesticide level, which would be determined by the Agriculture Ministry. There is a halachic basis for this.”
What followed was the answer to my question: “However, the Agriculture Ministry has not yet provided the Chief Rabbinate with this information, and therefore the initiative is being delayed.” This means, therefore, that kosher consumers eating “Gush Katif” produce are, for the most part, being subjected to dangerous levels of pesticides on a daily basis. I have seen some bags of bug-free produce on which is printed the statement that the growers use minimal amounts of pesticides (look for those packages), but not all companies are willing to go the extra length to reduce bugs by other means.
Another interesting fact that I learned from Kosher With No Certificate was the method by which the original Gush Katif farmers were able to grow their produce bug free. I thought it was just by growing the produce in a screen-covered environment. The article explained that “…the vegetables are grown on beds that are detached from the ground in sand that has been sterilized and in hermetically sealed hothouses. Growing vegetables in this manner makes them almost 10 times more expensive.”
I must admit I was quite surprised by the fact that they sterilized the sand. This would, of course, make sense in terms of preventing bugs in vegetables, but anyone who is familiar with organic gardening/farming is well aware that truly nutritious produce can only be grown in healthy soil, and that is soil in which bugs thrive. Gardeners.com explains:
Soil life. Soil organisms include the bacteria and fungi, protozoa and nematodes, mites, springtails, earthworms and other tiny creatures found in healthy soil. These organisms are essential for plant growth. They help convert organic matter and soil minerals into the vitamins, hormones, disease-suppressing compounds and nutrients that plants need to grow.
Their excretions also help to bind soil particles into the small aggregates that make a soil loose and crumbly. As a gardener, your job is to create the ideal conditions for these soil organisms to do their work. This means providing them with an abundant source of food (the carbohydrates in organic matter), oxygen (present in a well-aerated soil), and water (an adequate but not excessive amount).
So, although Gush Katif may have produced bug free produce without the use of pesticides, the produce, in my opinion, may have been less than optimal nutritionally. Artificially adding nutrients to the sand, as I’m sure the Gush Katif farmers must have been doing, was a good thing, but it does not compare to the natural way in which Hashem set up the agricultural system and the method by which natural farming benefits us all.
Non-Katif produce may therefore be preferable from both a health and economic standpoint, because they ostensibly contain fewer pesticides and cost less. Even kosher consumers, as confirmed by Rabbi Amar, can use non-Katif produce and do not have to put their health and finances at risk.
For consumers who want to go a step further, since regular produce is still grown with chemical pesticides, organic is the way to go. (Although Israel may import foods that have been genetically modified, at the present time Israel does not grow such foods.) Producers who have certified organic produce do not use chemical pesticides or GMO crops. Hopefully they are also concerned for their soil health.
Fortunately, Israel has a number of organic farms, generally CSA (community supported agriculture) producers who deliver their vegetables to either a central drop-off point in a community or to individual homes. And of course, organic produce can be found in health food stores around the country. As for the higher price, considering what Gush Katif and regular farmed vegetables have been costing us both in terms of health and finances, buying organic may be a vehicle for investing in our own and in our children’s long term health.
In the video below, Dr. Daphne Miller, a family doctor in California on a quest to heal her patients as naturally as possible, shows how using traditional farming methods yields superior fruits and vegetables and healthier human beings.
Thank you for breaking this down so clearly.
You’re very welcome. I think it’s important to know what’s really going on with our food supply and to be able to make our own informed decisions.
What about bodek2go produce which is said to be grown without pesticides and still bug free? Do you know anything about their greens? Thanks, Chava Maslin
Bodek2Go sells some organic produce. The regular Bodek frozen vegetables from the States uses pesticides.
Some of their produce is grown hydroponically – it may be those greens that are able to be grown bug free. Thanks for asking. I will try to find out more specifically what the process is and let you know.
i only just found this site and saw your question. to answer, as co-founder of bodek2go i can assure you that the fresh bug-free & bio-organic greens we sell are all grown without chemical pesticides. they are a an adapted and unique version of hydroponic and produce superior quality greens that are also being used for consumers, as well as cancer patients by leading doctors. i would be happy to answer any questions and you can contact me privately by email or tel . thanks and happy to contribute . blessing you with a shana tova
I myself have struggled to understand these issues for years and do not believe they are as cut and dry as you have presented them. Part of our challenge nowadays isn’t just organic vs non-organic but rather the fact that the entire enterprise of farming has changed. Farms used to be multi-functional operations where one found a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Crop rotation and livestock were the key to keeping soil rich and the plants healthy and insect free.
Nowadays our farms are all generally mono-culture. Fields entirely dedicated to lettuce, corn, etc. There is no crop rotations or letting fields lay fallow. This sort of farming is extremely destructive to the quality of the soil and therefore most farms are forced to fertilize artificially. This leads to a) less nutrients in the food, and b) a higher nitrogen content in the vegetables, making them far more attractive to bugs. So I am not sure that non-sand produce is any more nutrient rich. If an organic company composts instead of using chemical fertilizer, they may be adding to the nutrient content by some, but not to the extent it would be if the soil was farmed properly and had a rich “humus” underneath. Additionally, since the compost is heaped on in a very “inorganic” way, plants still get way too much nitrogen, and therefore the organics available are very pest ridden (that certainly has been my experience here in Israel).
I’m generally nervous about the amount of spraying that occurs in this country and assume that everyone sprays as much as they legally can. Why wouldn’t they? I can’t imagine a “gush katif” lettuce is any worse than its neighbor. There are government standards after all, even if they’re not great.
As far as what Chief R’ Amar said, one would really need to have to know the context it was said in. What group of people was he referring to and what was their circumstance? What lettuce was he referring to? Was he verifying that it is problematic or just giving advice to someone who felt like they couldn’t eat lettuce? I’ve found some batches of organic leafy greens to be so buggy I couldn’t even juice them according to halacha. Generally, the halachic expert sought in regards to vegetables is R’ Vaya. He has the greatest understanding of the scientific side and what happens in the fields. As far as I know all the Rabbis in this country follow his advice.
A final caveat I would send to anyone grappling with this subject is a piece of advice I’ve seen given by many health experts. Organic has not been clearly proven to be healthier than standard produce, although it certainly makes sense that it should be. Long term studies about cumulative effects of small doses of pesticides don’t exist, although it certainly makes sense that that would not be good for us. Nevertheless, people who can’t afford organics are highly encouraged to buy non-organic fruits and vegetables because the benefits far outweigh the detriments of not buying them!!! I found buying organics in this country to be economically unsustainable. I can’t afford 25 shekels a kilo apples or 14 sheks/k cucumbers. I also found the bug issues to be very challenging from both a halachic stance and time wise. Nevertheless, if the average kosher consumer isn’t buying gush katif, what is he buying? Does he have patience to deal with leaf after leaf after leaf of soaking and checking on the light box (I eat salad every day) or will he just pass on a serving of very important greens for the day? What will he eat in its place? Will he turn to less nutritious and/or processed foods?
Thanks for your thoughtful and considered comment.
The main object of this post was to clarify the pesticide situation regarding today’s “Gush Katif” vegetables. Since it became known that some of these companies are using way more pesticides than is generally allowed and the Rabbanut was going to hold back on giving these companies certification unless they reduced the amounts to acceptable levels, I’ve been wondering, and have been asked by others, if these companies have changed their practices and if the Rabbanut is withholding certification from companies using excessive pesticides.
This post, therefore, wasn’t meant to give a detailed analysis of the topic, but to give people information and clarification about the status of the bug-free produce that is being grown here and what their options might be. If there are other options or more information about individual practices/farms, I would be happy to know.
I agree with you wholeheartedly about the great benefits of traditional farming and the horrible conventional farming methods employed today. And yes, if it’s done properly then you can minimize the bugs. If you watch the video at the end of the post, she discusses bio-dynamic farming – very much in line with what you detailed.
As far as your questioning if the “Gush Katif” greens being sprayed are really sprayed more than the non-Katif ones – this was the discovery the Rabbanut was reacting to. I’m sure the Rabbanut wasn’t looking to make more work for themselves but understood that the levels of pesticides was – and unfortunately still is – truly unacceptable. If you further consider that most of the families who look for “Gusth Katif” produce have many small children, in my opinion, the magnitude of probable harm caused becomes significantly greater and significantly more serious. As I suggested, it pays to check the packaging of these greens since some of the companies do mention that they have reduced pesticide levels, and those companies deserve to be supported.
Regarding the difference between the original Gush Katif produce growing in sterile sand and produce growing in chemically sprayed and depleted soil – you’re right – they may both be not nutritionally optimal and you’ve got the chemicals to boot. So, for some people it could have been a toss-up, if money isn’t an issue for you (considering that the article said it had cost 10 times as much as conventional produce) and you don’t want to check the lettuce. It would be very interesting to know how they sterilized the sand and how they guaranteed the nutritional quality of the produce. Also, it is important to note that bug free plants do not need bug free soil since, as you mentioned, plants grown in truly healthy soil (that contains insects) are themselves healthy and insect free.
I don’t think that Rav Amar was necessarily talking about organics, but produce in general and each individual has to check with their own rav about what to do. It can’t be, however, that until the advent of pesticides and, more recently, bug-free technology, that observant Jewish people were not eating leafy greens and many other vegetables, nor can it mean that they were eating those vegetables even though they were buggy. And, certainly, they did not have light boxes.
I can’t comment about the organic lettuce you had that was extremely infested and couldn’t be used. Most people don’t want to eat food with bugs and if it was generally infested so badly it would be a problem for most consumers – not just those who observe kashrut. It’s probable that different CSAs use different farming methods and some care more about soil health and/or use more/better natural insect repellants than others.
I also never suggested not buying conventionally grown produce if organic was, for whatever reason, unobtainable. I just suggested a hierarchy of what might be preferred. I myself, for various reasons, am not totally organic. I also concur with you that not all organic produce is nutritionally superior for the very reasons you’ve cited. At the very least, I believe buying organics as much as possible is important to reduce the pesticide loads on our bodies and especially to avoid consuming those foods that have been genetically modified. If price is an issue, Gush Katif and bug-free produce is more expensive than conventional produce and, therefore, some people may not mind doing their own checking in order to save money.
The more producers see that we are concerned about the quality of the foods we are buying, the more likely they are to change their methods. If we care more about our health and purchase accordingly, then the market will respond. It doesn’t pay to market goods no one wants. This is as true for pesticide laden “Gush katif” vegetables versus “Gush Katif” vegetables with fewer pesticides as it is for organic produce grown in poor soil versus organic produce grown in healthy soil using traditional farming practices. It may not be an overnight change, but we have to begin somewhere.