Mustard Seeds and Mountains

WHEN I WAS LITTLE, I was enthralled with “The Parable of the Mustard Seed.” I knew what a mustard seed looked like, as my mother and grandmother spent many an hour each summer canning dill pickles; quite often I was allowed to sprinkle in the mustard seeds before adding the requisite stalk of dill. In my child’s mind, I wondered why we are called to have faith “the size of a mustard seed.” With faith this size, we are told in Matthew’s Gospel, we have the potential to move mountains. Why must faith be compared to something so tiny, so insignificant? At the time I reasoned that faith should be more like a bulldozer or a tractor if one was indeed to “move mountains.” It was not until I was in my late thirties that I realized the beauty, the joy, and the strength that is truly housed in something so very small.

For a while now I have been haunted by the notion that in our modern day seeds are sown not just for food. They are now used as emblems of power or blessings of resistance. In one such instance, we find the Ponca Nation dotting the Nebraska landscape in the path of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline with sacred Ponca red corn seeds. Up until the spring of 2014, with the first planting in opposition to tar-sands removal, red corn seed had not been planted in the rich Nebraska earth—the original homeland of the Ponca People—for close to 140 years. These sacred seeds are now termed “Resistance Corn.” These are seeds the Ponca people brought with them along the Ponca Trail of Tears from Nebraska to Oklahoma in 1877. The Ponca people know that one cannot dig a pipeline where the sacred red and blue corn seeds are sown, so they resist by sowing and reaping these sacred crops. Their acts defy those who wish to harm the earth and her natural resources as much as they are acts of faith in the sacred power held within a single kernel of corn.

Kernels of Resistance

Corn is not only a resistance crop used to fight oil exploiters; it is also at the center of a Genetically Modified (GM) crop debate in Mexico, a country that up until the twenty-first century relied solely on native maize seeds. In late 2009, the federal government of Mexico allowed small-scale experimentation of GM corn, directly in opposition to an earlier mandate. One of the reasons behind this action centers around declining Mexican corn revenues on the world stage due to cheaper US-subsidized corn flooding global markets. However, Demanda Colectiva Maíz, a community of people organized to support the legal defense of native corn, squashed a GM experiment in September 2013 with a lawsuit claiming that biodiversity is a human right. In support of their claims, the then-presiding Judge Jaime Manuel Marroquín Zaleta stated, “If the biotech industry gets its way, more than 7,000 years of indigenous maize cultivation in Mexico would be endangered, with the country’s sixty varieties of corn directly threatened by cross-pollination from transgenic strands.”

Yet the fight progresses onward. In late August of 2015, even though the collective won the lion’s share of almost 100 separate legal battles thrown its way, primarily by Monsanto and Syngenta, Judge Zaleta’s 2013 ruling was overturned. Since then the lobbying group AgroBIO has been heavily petitioning for transgenic GM crop cultivation, particularly of corn, to recommence in Mexico. But the overturned ruling has also prompted many chefs and other food activists to join with Demanda Colectiva in speaking out and rallying against GM corn and the havoc it would inflict upon the nation’s staple maize economy.

Many Davids, Six Goliaths

Art by Prasad Kusaram, taken from Signature: Patterns in Gond Art, Copyright Tara Books 2010

When six corporations hold the patents for almost all of the commercial seeds in the world, how many countries, how many lawsuits, and how many of us will it take to band together to slay this modern-day Goliath? I am plagued with many questions: Do we have a sacred responsibility to the earth and to all her inhabitants? Should we stand with our brothers and sisters in Nebraska and Mexico? How do we fight against Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and BASF—our modern-day food Goliaths? Is this a fight behind which people of all faiths should rally? Above all these questions, the greatest one remains: What would God have us do?

As people of faith, we are often told that pure faith comes from believing in that which we cannot see, what we cannot know for certain. Faith in the “Age of Monsanto” and unethical agribusiness practices means more than pure unadulterated belief; it must be belief coupled with action.

Many of the lessons we learn in the Torah, particularly in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, call on us to be good stewards of the earth. Leviticus 25 reminds us that one should sow and reap for six years, but the seventh year is to be a “complete rest for the land.” This understanding of a “Sabbath of the Land” is not limited to the Abrahamic faiths; for thousands of years, farmers all over the world knew the importance of leaving fields fallow so as not to strip all of the nutrients from the soil. This is the proper design of sustainable subsistence farming, and it is what we are taught to do religiously and culturally as part of our best practices. But with Monsanto and other agribusiness giants leading the way, farmers have been told that they must plant, every year, in the same mineral-depleted soils, acres upon acres of one type of plant. They have also been told to plant seeds that have been altered to conform to human-made ideals of what the plant ought to be, even if studies have proven that GM seeds are harmful to both the earth and those who dwell upon it. Is this part of God’s design for a right relationship of human to the earth?

In one of my favorite passages from the Qur’an, we are eloquently reminded that the seed and the powerful complexity held within its tiny walls belongs to no one but God:

It is Allah who causes the seed-grain and the date-stone to split and sprout. He causes the living to issue from the dead, and He is the One to cause the dead to issue from the living. That is Allah: then how are you deluded away from the truth?

To rephrase the question for the modern context: Why, then, do agribusiness giants delude us from the truth? Since the late 1940s, farmers across America have been systematically forced into abandoning historic knowledge on biodiversity and crop rotation in order to plant just one crop at high yields for lower profits—such as corn, wheat, or soy—and to use the herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that agribusiness corporations sell in order to maintain those crops. This is “agripower” at its finest—or rather, its worst. It is a system that works not for conservation, but for power. 

Agridollars vs. Health

In his classic work, The Unsettling of America, environmentalist and writer Wendell Berry expounds upon this notion:

“Agripower,” it will be noted, is not measured by the fertility or health of the soil, or the health, wisdom, thrift, or stewardship of the farming community. It is measured by its ability to produce a marketable surplus, which “generates agridollars.” …. The income from this increased production, we are told, is spent by the farmers not for soil maintenance or improvement, water conservation, or erosion control, but for “purchase inputs.”

Agribusiness and the power it commands are not in keeping with God’s stewardship design. As laid out in Deuteronomy 14, the faithful are called to “set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field.” Nor is agribusiness part of the agrarian ideal, which would allow food for all, especially those who are poor and hungry.

A proper, ethically, and sustainably understood model is one that feeds us. As the physicist and world-renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva notes, “Biodiversity-based measures of productivity show that small farmers can feed the world. Their multiple yields result in truly high productivity, composed as they are of multiple yields of diverse species used for diverse purposes.” For far too long the rich have been getting richer and we no longer have the ability to take care of the poor from the surplus of our own properly tended crops. We have taken sacred dominion out of the hands of God and placed it firmly in the grasp of Monsanto, a corporation determined to make of itself a new God—one that patents seeds and thus owns them all. Food justice activists have told us for years that the one who controls the seeds ultimately controls the people. So the question we are left with is simple: Are we children of God and in His power, or are we pawns of agribusiness? Our collective answer should be found in the proper care, cultivation, and value of everything from a kernel of corn to that faithful grain of mustard seed.

People of all faiths must not only begin an authentic dialogue with one another in order to protect what we all have been given, but we also must get involved at a local level with our dollars and with our hands. With each meal we have the ability to support either agribusiness corporations or our local farmers. Our food choices are always ours to make. They are not owed to or owned by Monsanto and the like unless we allow them to be. Websites such as and are invaluable tools for getting people involved in local food movements, and they can easily be incorporated as part of an ethical stewardship program in one’s local congregation.

A corrupt government now marshaled by GM lobbyists can be counter-maneuvered successfully by a people set firmly on the path of resistance. Thomas Jefferson understood this in 1785. He writes, “Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such [a sorry state] as our souls are now.” Like Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, we must be willing to get our hands dirty in the proper care of our souls and of the earth. Holding interfaith events on such things as gardening, raising chickens, or how to stock up the pantry come harvest time are small ways in which we all can move forward for the health of the planet and ourselves.

Now is the time for us to listen to the sacred stories of seed and harvest, of blessed dominion and right propagation. We must remember that corn, and all earth’s seeds, have already been designed for optimum results, with biodiversity in mind, and are created with the intention to give us both physical and spiritual nourishment. All that remains, then, is that we be willing to listen to the song of the seeds and to join with our Hopi sisters and brothers in the belief in Um Hapi Qaa’öniwti, that “people become corn.” We must allow our faith to be as mighty as that tiny and glorious mustard seed so that we can move the mountains of powerful agribusiness firmly out of the way.

(To return to the Spring 2016 Table of Contents, click here.)


Source Citation

Tikkun 2016 Volume 31, Number 2: 17-19

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