Seed-Saving as Self-Determination and Resistance
by Pancho McFarland
Gardeners at the Roseland Community Peace Garden have committed to the principles of bija swaraj, which is the principle of seed self-rule or seed democracy. They are also committed to bija satyagraha or non-cooperation with the powerful corporate seed machines and unjust laws and legal structures that benefit transnational corporations at the expense of the planet. This summer at the Outdoor CommUnity Classroom at the Peace Garden, gardeners discussed international movements for food sovereignty and food autonomy, especially as detailed by Vandana Shiva in her numerous works and how this related to the their situations in the U.S. inner city.
A Commitment to Bija Swaraj
In the Peace Garden we discuss the seed, bija. We examine the fact that seed is the source of life. Access to the seed means the ability to survive. If one group or entity controls bija, then they control our livelihoods. CommUnity classes in the garden include an analysis of the dominant capitalist food system. We develop a critique of the monopolization of seed, food and, ultimately, life by corporate agribusiness through Trade-Related Intellectual Property laws (TRIPs) and other legal and violent mechanisms. In addition, we reflect on our work in the garden, especially as it relates to seed, and its possibilities for resistance to the capitalist food system.
Gardeners, neighbors, students and children practice satyagraha; through growing their own food from personally — and communally — saved seed they defy the authoritarian control of the corporate food system. The Peace Garden has put to practice the ideal of bija satygraha and bija swaraj by collecting seeds and exchanging with others concerned about our food supply. A local seed system must be part of any revolutionary new society based on democracy, autonomy, diversity and ecological principles.
Resistance is futile; or so, they say
A university student-gardener commented about our work in the garden. In a gentle manner he suggested that all the work we were doing in the garden over the past five years and individual attempts to live more ecologically were futile. We still live in a polluted environment where wealth is measured by the number of things you possess, he argued. You can live as healthy as you can by riding your bike to the community garden but the climate is still chaotic as everyone else drives their cars to the fast food joints.
We discussed his concern at length with many feeling similar frustrations regarding the seemingly insurmountable crises of food, energy and climate as described by Shiva in her book, Soil Not Oil. A more optimistic point of view concluded that living healthy and ecologically has numerous benefits that make our efforts well worth it. Finally, we conclude that attempts to live ecologically improve individual wellbeing but food justice requires community. It requires building alternative ecological and democratic institutions and structures. Many of us also felt that the negative sentiment was based on an over-generalization and that every day more people are rejecting corporate fast food and opting for local, slow, and deep foods.
Solutions to the climate, food and energy crises and the crises of poverty and racism require s strategy of noncooperation with a culture that degrades dignified work and the beings who do productive work. A satyagraha aimed at the capitalist definition of value redefines work and wealth.
Saving Seed: CommUnity Wealth
The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living in Pembroke, IL (some 40 miles from the Chicago metro area) builds commUnity wealth through developing skills, disseminating knowledge and creating networks of ecologically-minded individuals and groups. The Black Oaks Center website explains:
Our vision is to create safe, healing spaces founded on the principles of environmental stewardship and social equality. A place where community can learn skills required to master sustainability to lead a successful transition to a post carbon world. From this, our communities, families, and children will be resilient. Hence, they will be fully capable of being lifeboats thriving during an energy descent.
The Black Oaks Center is a crucial place in the larger ecology and food movements in the US and globally. The members are Black farmers whose friends, families and communities have experienced the loss of the Black agrarian tradition with its roots in African traditions and the racist inequality of the global capitalist food system. African Americans are much more likely to live in food deserts than any other racial/ethnic group in the US. Black farmers have lost a disproportionate amount of their farmland and have had trouble getting their grievances adequately addressed by federal and state governments. In addition, the founders of The Black Oaks Center recognize the limits and inequalities of the current energy and food systems. Like Shiva and others, they see a perfect storm of energy, climate and food crises devastating Black and poor communities.
As a result of violent processes leading to urbanization and inner-city impoverishment, traditions of Black agrarian culture are being lost at approximately the same rate as food security is diminishing in Black Chicago. Black Oaks disrupts these processes through education and preparation in resiliency. In order for people to survive the capitalist food, energy and climate crises they must be adaptable and they must have community self-determination and the knowledge of our ancestors’ food traditions. How we produce, distribute, consume and make decisions regarding food must follow principles of self-sufficiency, localism, sustainability, democracy and autonomy.
Developing a local democratic food system is at the heart of their resistance (satyagraha) to authoritarian corporate control of life and the racism of the capitalist food system. Black Oaks’ local food system is a set of alternative institutions in the Ghandian tradition as well as the continuation of Black freedom practices like those of maroons and the freedom schools of the Black Panther Party. Their contribution to a local food system includes a farmer apprenticeship program, coalition work with other gardeners and farmers in the region, and the dynamic market called, The Healthy Food Hub, where local food artisans, farmers and gardeners sell affordable, healthy food to inner-city residents who normally experience a lack of food options.
Black Oaks’ projects represent a few among many strategies of opting out of the capitalist food system and opting for community autonomy. If corporate control of life means that a few transnational corporations determine what the masses of people eat, then resistance to it requires that we fight for localism, self-determination and the development of institutions like Black Oaks’ Healthy Food Hub and other community-controlled institutions.
The transition from a carbon-based, capitalist economy to a sustainable democratic economy requires a shift in values. In particular, our ideas of wealth must be interrogated and changed to meet the needs of our communities. In a recent communication to members Black Oaks writes:
A radical values reconstruction can occur when we appreciate ourselves as Human Capital rather than Human Resources. One is richly and repeatedly invested in order to reap continually abundant returns. The other is simply available to be harvested and discarded at the end of its useful Life. We value the members, stakeholders, volunteers, apprentices and team members of the Healthy food Hub. We will always invest in the people whom have invested their time, currency, ideas and energy with us. The legacy of this return to community centered wealth metric is a reward to be reaped by our children long into the future. (“On a Radical Values Reconstruction,” email from Black Oaks Center to members of the Healthy Food Hub, September 3, 2013)
Against measuring value by markets and currency, Black Oaks and many others in the local, sustainable and food justice movements offer an alternative value system rooted in people and community. Being, not things, becomes the focus of a ‘good life.’ Relationships are the measure of wealth correcting a century or so of misplaced emphasis on anti-social, material wealth. It is only through the development of positive relationships with all our relations that we can combat the greed, violence, oppression and inequality of capitalism and other forms of domination that plague our world today. We require a transformative biocentric ethic exemplified in in lak ech (‘you are my other me’) and mitakuye oyasin (‘all my relations’).
The seed is at the heart of this struggle for a transformative biocentrism that will lead us to self-determination and a locally-controlled, democratic, ecological food system. In a living economy that supports biodiversity and extends rights of right livelihood to all, wealth is redefined as the seed and the resources to turn the seed into food and more seed. Black Oaks knows this and has provided opportunities for the development of commUnity wealth through seed sharing and low cost seed and seedling sales. Four years ago a member of the Green Lots Project purchased a flat of tomato seedlings from Black Oaks. The original 30 or so plants of cherry, roma and yellow pear and other varieties have turned into thousands of pounds of tomatoes feeding Roseland residents, Green Lots members and neighbors and friends across the city. Since then we have not purchased a single tomato seed or seedling for the Roseland Community Peace Garden as the lovingly tended soil in our once trash-strewn lot saves our seed for us.
The local seed first saved and planted by the Black Oaks Center, then purchased by the Green Lots Project has fed hundreds over the past four years and will continue to do so. This gift offered by 30 or so seeds has increased and expanded commUnity wealth in food-impoverished communities in Chicago and beyond. From 30 seedlings has sprouted thousands of plants. Some have remained on-site at the RCPG while others have been destroyed to make room in our little plot. Last year, because we hated to destroy so many plants, we began a tradition of giving tomato plants away. Individuals and community garden groups have come to the RCPG and transplanted our tomato plants to new homes. In the process even more people were fed and learned some of the values taught by bija. In the process of sharing tomatoes we shared parts of each other and practiced the sustainable values of commUnity. We found, like the Black Oaks Center, “that people learn best by working in close proximity with one another where accountability matters most deeply.” We strengthen relationships and thus, fortify ourselves in the face of neglect and attacks by the dominant capitalist food system and its ethics of individualism and consumption. This is the wealth provided by bija.
Pancho McFarland, Ph.D., is a former b-boy, current hip hop head, professor of sociology at Chicago State University, author, martial artist, and father. His book, Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio, is the first book written about Mexican Americans and hip hop. He is an activist within the food justice and local food movements. This essay originally appeared on the Environmental and Food Justice blog.