A Seed on the Seder Plate

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Seed saving at Nadvanya

in this earth
in this earth
in this immaculate field
we shall not plant any seeds
except for compassion
except for love
Two weeks ago Rae posted a short message on her facebook wall: “Idea ~ what about putting a seed on the Seder plate this year to represent the patenting and owning of seeds, of life, and the movements toward seed freedom, organic GMO-free food, healthy agriculture and thriving communities…? Curious to hear your thoughts…” Instant like-like-like. “Sow brilliant,” commented a compost-making friend. The response was overwhelmingly positive. So we thought we’d post this invite to the interfaith Tikkun reader community and dig deeper into what’s behind this idea and how together we can cultivate a movement for healthy eats and food justice.
Last November, we embarked on a four-month journey to India to further our work as food justice and peace activists. Ariel spent the past four years in the US working to label and ban genetically engineered food (GMOs). And Rae dedicated the past decade to anti-war organizing. Traveling to India, we sought to connect the dots between issues of oppression, poverty, global corporate destruction of natural resources, to deeper understand systemic violence and to gain a more global perspective. We enrolled in a course on Gandhian nonviolence and globalization taught by Dr. Vandana Shiva and others at the Navdanya Earth University in northern India, and spent time meeting with community organizations working on protecting seed freedom, water rights, and low-income community needs. The GMO issue is way bigger than our current US struggle for the right to know what’s in our food; in India it’s a matter of life and death.

Ariel harvesting mustard seed at Navdanya

While corporate money from Monsanto was the main cause of the death of both GMO labeling propositions in California and Washington State, Monsanto is also responsible for the death of over 284,694 farmers in India. These farmers committed suicide after going into debt because of contracts with Monsanto for BT cotton, which is a genetically modified variety of cotton that produces an insecticide. BT cotton seeds are expensive and lose vigor after one generation, requiring farmers to buy new stock every year, when before farmers could seed save and not purchase new seed. GMOs have been linked to cancer, organ failure, and damage to soil. Currently India is the number one exporter of cotton in the world and 93% of the cotton is BT. So understandably Indian anti-GMO activists are up against a huge industry.
There’s a growing Rights of Nature movement, which, rather than appraise ecology into capitalist terms, seeks to legally defend nature in its inherent value. The seed freedom movement is part of this framework. The Indian movement has successfully stopped GMO eggplant, neem, and bananas from entering the country. But sometimes the battle to stop new patents on GMO seeds can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Despite the Sisyphean nature of it, activists are incredibly dedicated, and we returned home to the US earlier this month re-inspired and deeply moved to do more here in the US to build community, stand for justice, and continue to work to protect our environment.

Rae and Ariel with their three teachers at Navdanya: Satish Kumar, Dr. Vandana Shiva, and Dr. Madhu Prakash

Returning in springtime, with Passover on the horizon, has given us time to reflect on the liberation story of our ancestors and ask what needs liberating in our current world. Of course human slavery continues to be rampant and must be stopped. Human trafficking is happening on a magnitude far greater than the African slave trade to America ever was. But what about the enslavement of the natural world? Seeds are the source of life, and the first link in the food chain. Control over seed means a control over our lives, our food and our freedom: a dangerous and deadly business. It’s time we collectively stand up for seed freedom, which is why this year we are proposing adding a seed to the Seder plate.
Phyllis Rubin authored a GMO-Free Seder Haggadah in which, during the Karpas section, she invites participants to take the first green produce of the new growing season in hand and dip it in salt water to remember “the tears of those who have suffered from our industrial food production system: farmers, livestock, eaters, soil and water,” by experiencing the known health effects of massive doses of pesticides as well as the unknown effects of ingesting transgenic food. Rubin has reframed the four questions into an informative explanation of GMOs. Organizations such as Hazon are seeking to examine what Jewish ethics and laws of kashrut mean with regard to our modern food systems, encouraging us to buy local, organic foods and form relationships with our neighborhood markets and regional farmers, eating seasonally and in harmony with earth systems. The People’s Grocery in Oakland, CA, seek to make such organic produce available in low-income communities where food deserts – a plethora of liquor stores and fast food joints and a lack of fresh market goods – are vast. From the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, to Navdanya farm and seed bank where we studied in Dehradun, India, there is a growing network of seed banks around the country and world, provide free classes on organic gardening and seed saving. Also in the California Bay Area, Urban Adamah has created a farm within the city to educate Jewish youth on farming, “Hebrew homesteading,” and make connections with local groups to serve up healthy food to those in need. Last month Hazon published the Jewish Outdoor, Food, & Environmental Education (JOFEE) Report (http://issuu.com/hazon/docs/jofee_report) which documents how Jewish ecological efforts like Urban Adamah are having an impact on food choices, commitment to sustainability, and multi-generational engagement in environmental activities and Jewish life.

Organic greenhouse at Navdanya

We can all do our part by striving to eat healthily and, as Gandhi would say, being the change we want to see in the world via our consumer choices and lifestyle decisions. But as Americans who are part of a global superpower, we also have a responsibility to shift the current paradigm of corporate power on our food system. Returning from India, we are interested to see more intersections between the movements and work happening in the US and the powerful organizing happening overseas, from a cross-cultural, interfaith, and interconnected perspective. This year, consider adding seed to your Seder plate – a poppy or sesame seed (sigh, we won’t be eating bagels for a week), a pomegranate seed, an avocado seed, or maybe a seed from your springtime garden. Ideally, make it an organic seed. And then invite a discussion about seed freedom around your table of family and friends. How are we each part of a system that is enslaving our food, water, and soil? Why is it important for seeds to be free? What could a commitment for ecological liberation look like for each of you in the year ahead?
For more information on the Indian Seed Freedom movement, visit https://seedfreedom.in/ and http://www.navdanya.org/.
Ariel Vegosen is a writer, educator, activist, PR expert, community organizer, and board member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She will be celebrating Passover with family and with Wilderness Torah at Passover in the Desert. She can be reached at arielmintwood [at] gmail [dot] com
Rae Abileah is a social change strategist, freelance writer, activist and community organizer. She will be celebrating Passover with family and in the desert as well. She lives in California and can be reached at rae [at] raeabileah [dot] com.