I sink my shovel into the hard-packed but luxuriously rich alluvial soil and turn it over, stooping over to pick out the weeds and shards of broken glass. The day is humid - as most are here in Baton Rouge - and after a few shovelings, I am in a sweat. Still, it feels incredibly good to be doing this work after nine straight days of cycling.
The goings-on in our nation's congress seem remote as we participate in this community's effort to build an urban garden site, but they hang a shadow over the day. In the most recent budget bill, a line item was snuck in that would exclude agribusiness giant Monsanto from any judicial review at all for six months. It's being called, sardonically, the "Monsanto Protection Act." The implications for our food supply are great.
While the last decade or so has seen a resurgence in farmers' markets and community gardens, along with a renewed focus on fresh, unprocessed food, a revolution of a different sort has been happening in commercial agriculture. Companies like Monsanto have been given a bouquet of legal freebees - to put copyrights on seeds, persecute farmers who inadvertently grow those copyrighted crops, and buy up smaller seed companies so that they're one of the only players on the field.
The "good" revolution is the one that's most visible, which is pretty nice for us. The morning of the Baton Rouge urban garden work party, we breakfasted on local bacon, toast and eggs, attended a bustling farmers' market, and walked by several small front-yard food gardens. After riding our bikes through food deserts, oil fields and endless cattle ranches in east Texas, finding local flavor and people who were passionate about food - most of all, our host, Mark - felt great. Even better, now we could actually do something to help make this tiny corner of the country a tiny bit more food secure. The three of us turned that patch of soil with vigor.
The garden will be a site for local at-risk youth to grow food and learn that there is more to life than Skittles and pizza. One partner on the project is Slow Food Baton Rouge, and we met two ladies who are Americorps members with the organization. Their envelope full of seeds caught my eye. Hannah and I dashed back to Mark's apartment, grabbed the Official Food Cycles Bike Tour Seed Bank, and hurried back to score some okra and pumpkin seeds in exchange for our cilantro packets from Green Journey Seeds. Bam - mission accomplished, new garden bed constructed, seeds saved, feeling good.
But the dark cloud of the Monsanto Protection Act was still out there, hovering while we sucked on boiled crawfish at the get-together that followed the work party. After I'd received the email about this piece of legislation, which was inserted into the latest version of the federal budget, I signed the online petition and contacted my legislator. I'd shared the information via email and the social networks. Wasn't there anything else I could do - some shovel I could lift in protest, perhaps bringing it down again atop a greedy agribusiness executive or slow-witted congressperson?
Buying local food, growing it yourself, and taking other steps to reduce your footprint on the planet (like riding a bike!) are only part of what it takes to live responsibly on this planet. If we care about our food supply, not just for ourselves but for the next several generations, we need to do what we can to keep big business out of it. The shovel we have to lift is our voice - so let it be heard!
The bill passed through the legislature so now it's up to the President to veto the Monsanto Protection Act in the budget bill when he looks at it later this week. With Michelle Obama's focus on school gardens and nutrition education, we know that the Obamas are aware of food issues and don't envision a future where we're all eating pellets of Soylent Green.
I used the online form, but you can also call the president's office and give a quick message about why you are opposed to legal amnesty for Monsanto. Here's what I wrote him (feel free to borrow, adapt and elaborate):
My partner Hannah and I are on a cross-country bicycle tour to teach people about where their food comes from and why it is important to eat fresh food that comes from local farmers. We can't continue to build the local food movement if farmers are under threat of violating a genetic copyright when they grow their crops. Please don't put Monsanto's profits over our right to a safe, non-GMO food supply.
We don't have much time so let's get the word out fast. Thanks for taking action!