(Suzanne Rumsey, PWRDF’s public engagement co-ordinator, delivered this reflection during a prayer service commemorating World Food Day, held Oct. 13, at the Anglican Church of Canada’s Chapel of the Holy Apostles, Toronto. World Food Day is commemorated on Oct. 16, the founding anniversary of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Each year, people around the world declare their commitment to end global hunger. The theme for 2016 is “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” )
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:11-13)
I’ve gone back to school. At the rate of one course a term I will have my Masters in Theological Studies just about the time I reach retirement age. Something to fall back on in my retirement years perhaps? Meanwhile, herewith are a few reflections based on some of the reading I’ve been enjoying in my course with theologian and organic farmer, Sylvia Keesmaat. The course is titled Creation, Food, Land – Biblical Faith, Current Crisis.
In her “agrarian reading of the bible” theologian Ellen Davis takes as her starting point the intimate relationship between the health of the land and humanity’s observance of God’s covenant, God’s shalom. Davis writes: “Overall, from a biblical perspective, the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth, or more particularly of the land of Israel, is the best index of the health of the covenant relationship.” Davis goes on to assert that from that same perspective the nature of the current global ecological crisis “is principally moral and theological rather than technological.”
Over the past three years, the education work of PWRDF has centred on the theme of food security; enabling Canadian Anglicans to understand the intimate relationships between their faith and food security in their lives, in their communities, and in the world. Through workshops, courses, worship services and hands-on farming and gardening experiences, participants have learned from and been inspired by the moral and theological responses of those both in the Global South and North, to our ecological crisis. Two of those responses have had a particular focus on seeds.
The Middle East is a remarkably bio-diverse region of the world. Like the land that Israel occupied in the biblical narrative, Bangladesh is a country rich in biodiversity. At the Sorrento Centre this summer, PWRDF development partner Farida Akhter, founder and director of UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative) based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, described how, prior to the so-called “Green Revolution” the country boasted over 15,000 varieties of rice. Thousands of those varieties were lost as a result of the “technological fix” offered to Bangladeshi farmers in the form of a limited number of “higher yielding varieties” of rice. It was this situation and the devastating floods of 1987 and 1988 that brought farmers in the Tangail region of Bangladesh to UBINIG to ask for help. Farida writes that, “Through interactions with the farmers, it was revealed very clearly that effects of floods were more devastating because farmers were dependent on [a] reduced diversity of rice seeds and that they could not afford to bear the additional costs of fertilizers and pesticides.”
Out of these interactions emerged Nayakrishi Andolon, the New Agricultural Movement, “led by farming communities of Bangladesh practicing biodiversity-based ecological agriculture.” Like the description of agrarianism offered by Ellen J. Davis, as “a way of thinking and ordering life in community that is based on the health of the land and of living creatures,” the Bangla word krishi is described as “cultivation of the relation between human beings and nature that transforms both and functions as an integral whole, as the single organism… It is an act of reciprocal nurturing.”
There are now 300,000 farming households in Bangladesh practicing Nayakrishi. Central to the movement is the Nayakrishi Seed Network (NSN), a web of household, community and regional seed huts and ‘wealth centres’ developed to “keep seeds in farmers’ hands” because “control over seed is the lifeline of the farming community and ensures the command of the farmers over the agrarian production cycle. Strengthening farmers’ seed system is essential for innovation and knowledge generation.” Over 3,000 varieties of rice seeds are now collected and catalogued by the Nayakrishi Seed Network, along with a host of other fruit, vegetable, cereal, pulse and plant varieties.
At Sorrento, Farida described the appeal of a Bangladeshi woman farmer to her fellow farmers at a Nayakrishi rally, “Sisters, keep the seeds in your hands!” Indeed it is women who traditionally are their communities’ “seed bearers,” a role they lost as a result of the Green Revolution, but one that Nayakrishi Andolon is enabling them to reclaim and thus, return to them a certain measure of social and economic power.
In spite of Nayakrishi Andolon’s best efforts, the government of Bangladesh and agribusiness continue to push farmers to use a limited number of genetically modified (GM) seeds. This is a global phenomenon. For example, Davis notes “While there are in existence some 50,000 varieties of corn grouped in 200 to 300 landraces, U.S. commercial production ‘relies almost exclusively on the cultivation of a handful of hybrid varieties from two of these races.'” Writing in 2009, Davis described how just ten corporations controlled 55 percent of the seed sales globally. In September 2016, agribusiness and chemical giants, Monsanto and Bayer announced their merger with Monsanto being bought by Bayer for US$66 billion making the new corporation the largest seed and pesticide company in the world, and further increasing the global monopoly. Now “just four companies providing 59 percent of the global seeds and 64 percent of the world’s pesticides.”
In the face of this global reality, how does humanity continue to be God’s ‘seed bearers?’ There are no easy answers, but like the women of Nayakrishi Andolon in Bangladesh, there are many examples of resistance and hope, of moral and theological stands, being taken throughout the world.
PWRDF began its food security campaign with a worship service here in this chapel in November 2013. At that service those gathered were invited to plant a seed and share a story about food in their lives. Pepe Elwert, a young theology student from Germany who was interning with PWRDF at the time, shared a fascinating story about how he became a small corn farmer:
“Actually everyone in my family became a small corn farmer and we had our ‘field’ close to where we lived – on our balcony to be precise. We had seven strong corn plants growing in our field. At that time a number of my classmates and friends also became corn farmers. Stories were told, seeds were shared and signs were put up to invite more people to become part of this movement. What was this all about?
“Around 2005, the chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto wanted to introduce its genetically engineered corn hybrid seed MON 810 in Germany. The multinational company did massive lobbying and tried to gain more support all over Europe by underlining the huge advantages of its seeds for farmers and society in general…
“A European non-profit organization called SOS (Save Our Seeds) launched a campaign called ‘Bantam!’ Golden Bantam is a traditional corn species, whose seeds have been grown for more than a hundred years and can be planted again. As a sign of protest against Monsanto more than 100,000 people in Germany started to plant this old type of corn in their backyards, beneath their front porch, on their balcony or on the roof of their garages. Thereby they declared it a ‘gentech-free’ zone. They officially registered their corn ‘fields’ and were recognized as corn farmers if they had at least six plants…To prevent MON 180 pollen from corrupting other fields there had to be a certain safety corridor without any corn farmers or traditional corn plants in it. Soon the campaign became so popular that there were few spots left on the map for such corridors. Finally the German government passed a national prohibition against MON 180.”
During our class lecture on September 20, Sylvia Keesmaat described how Indigenous peoples pay attention to the plants, place, people and creatures through “prolonged, attentive observation.” Farida Akhter explained that if one asks a Bangladeshi farmer which seed to plant they will in turn ask, what one’s soil is like for planting. Wendell Berry has written that trees are planted as an act of hope “for the future.” Being a “seed bearer” in today’s world can be an act of resistance and hope; a moral and theological response to that which is destroying creation and in so doing, destroying humanity’s covenant relationship with God. It is work that requires one to take the long view. As one engaged in this work for over two and a half decades – and some of you have been at it for longer than that! – I find hope in such acts of resistance and in the words of Ken Untener, late Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us…
“This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities…
“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”