When we talk about change from the roots up, we’re talking about people like Esiah Levy.
Yesterday, on a cold, sunny day in Croydon, at Purley Baptist Church, we said goodbye to Esiah Ameer Emmanuelle Levy, who tragically passed away on 22nd January 2019. The room was filled with his loving family, friends, local councillors and colleagues from both his work at TFL and his “side” project SeedsShare.
As someone who only recently got to know Esiah, it was both heartbreaking and an honour to be among the mourners, and to hear personal accounts of his life, from “Handsome young son” to devoted father and husband. It goes without saying that all thoughts at this time are with his wife, his young children, his extended family and friends.
I first met Esiah almost exactly a year ago, at the Spring edition of Food For Real Festival in Liverpool, which explores the “environmental, political, health and cultural impacts of the foods we grow, eat, waste and share, and the communities and creativity surrounding food”.
We sat next to each other for a screening of Seed: The Untold Story: a documentary about the seed keepers, farmers, activists and scientists who are attempting to protect the natural diversity and resilience of the food we grow.
I got a sneak preview into just how fired up Esiah was about the issues surrounding GMO foods and the dangerous power that corporate monsters like Monsanto have over some of the world’s most vulnerable farming communities… Mainly because each time the documentary revealed a new shocking statistic, he jolted in his seat, sat bolt upright and excitedly whispered to me “this is IT” or “that’s what I’m SAYING”. We giggled at his outbursts, but the message was no less poignant.
It was as if Esiah was thrilled to the core to see evidence of just how many people around the world felt as passionately as he did about people’s access to food, and he seemed completely humbled by the realisation that he genuinely belonged in that sacred club of people who are doing something to improve the system for everyone else.
With Esiah’s passing we lose a “silent hero”; an activist who never got a chance to truly appreciate the spread of his impact and the number of lives he touched, because he was too busy just getting on with it.
In December 2016 he set up SeedsShare: harvesting and distributing organic seeds which can produce free food and provide long-term food security for individuals or community gardening groups, particularly in areas where organic fresh produce is scarce or unaffordable.
SeedsShare seeds have reached as far as Japan, Canada, Peru, Indonesia, France, America, the Netherlands, Russia and beyond (Roots and All Podcast)
Seed sharing is something that has been done and passed down generations for as long as humans have farmed. But in the 20th Century, there was a shift in how seeds were used and distributed, and a new kind of power stepped in to control our food.
Trends for uniformed seeds fuelling new levels of demand for highly processed, mass produced foods, at all times of the year, created a market for corporations to own and control the kinds of seeds we [think we] need. From the 80’s, oil, agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies bought up this seed industry, flushing the market with GMO or hybrid F1 seeds. (Table Magazine/Seed:The Movie)
Monoculture GMO crops have now been rolled out, and it has become difficult to protect native, local wild seed varieties. Yet it is these seeds that are some of the most important sources of genetic diversity which could potentially save our world food system from collapse in an unknown, climate change future. (The Green Conspiracy)
People who share and save seeds are pushing back against the fact that today 3/4 of the world’s food comes from just 12 plant and 5 animal species, with a total of 75% of all seeds owned and sold by just 5 corporations, many with ties to fertilisers and pesticides. (Seed:The Movie)
When Esiah Levy set up SeedsShare he initially wanted to help provide long-term food security for the people and communities he knew, but this quickly spread worldwide, to other communities where access to organic fresh produce is limited. His work on SeedsShare has been mostly unfunded, in his own time; his seeds are 100% organic, grown in his own garden and other growing spaces; and the growth of the project has been entirely dictated by demand; from individuals, gardens, growers and communities.
Esiah told The Green Conspiracy that the idea started when he was trying to find affordable organic produce to make baby food for his son:
“Growing food you can say is in my blood, having a father who’s not too bad himself who grew food in Jamaica and after coming to live in Brixton London in the 1950’s as part of the Windrush generation. What got me into gardening was actually the price of organic fruit/veg where I live and that the time wanting to make 100% vegan organic baby food for my son and the limited choice of fruit and veg which was available in the supermarkets and market stalls too”
He believed that there was a clear cost barrier to organic produce, and that this was most felt in communities which are less affluent, but he also felt that this barrier could be overcome “through the decision to grow one’s own”. Despite a recent rise in community gardens to cater for the increasing demand and lack of allotment garden spaces; Esiah was concerned by the lack of publicly available spaces for growing produce.
In his relatively short career as a gardener and running SeedShare, (on top of his work at TFL), he explored and honed new ways of making growing food more accessible: He worked with Croydon Council to renovate rooftop gardens using recycled materials; created ‘guerilla’ gardens with organisations such as Lend and Tend; taught people ‘no dig technique’ gardening; ran workshops, showing people how to grow their own produce in unexpected locations such as balconies; and he educated people on how to recycle certain food wastes by collecting surplus from cafes, breweries and working with council refuse services.
The thing that struck so many of us who were lucky enough to work with Esiah, was his humility and his thirst for learning about what other were doing – rather than to promote his own impressive projects.
When I had the privilege of inviting him to speak at Company Drinks HQ in Barking, he had cleared his whole afternoon so that he had time to meet the volunteers and give them growing tips. He wanted a tour of our building and to learn how we operated. We spent hours plotting ways in which we could collaborate in future and he followed this with another visit later in the year to check in again with our own growing group.
He knew that the best way to grow impact is to grow networks, personally, on the ground, over time, and he did so by sharing skills, knowledge, kindness, anecdotes and stories…
The stories which instantly came to mind when I heard of his tragic, sudden passing were those when he talked enthusiastically about growing on his allotment with his young son, or when he showed him how easy it was, say, to grow delicious tomatoes from a small garden pot. His ideas came to life in the context of his own life, and the beginnings of SeedsShare: wanting to provide affordable, healthy food for his family.
His impact was so far reaching but it came from small, personal roots. He had no idea that by sending those little envelopes of seeds to people around the world; charging them only for postage; sharing his knowledge of growing food; he was single handedly chipping away at the system and challenging the corporate food powers that be. He has influenced so many people to continue seed sharing and changing the food system one plant at a time, and for this I am confident that his legacy will live on beyond his all-too-short life.
I’ll leave you with a quote of his which I found in an interview with The Green Conspiracy and loved. When asked what his dream scenario for the future would be he replied: “easy, as many urban gardens open to the public as there are betting shops and fast food chicken shops!”
- The SeedsShare website is a great place to learn more about this excellent project, as well as Instagram @croydongardener
- All thoughts are with Esiah’s family. There is a memorial fundraiser you can contribute to, to help with the funeral costs and to support them at this incredible difficult time, or if you’d just like to leave a message.
- If you want to learn more about why Esiah Levy started SeedsShare and why it’s so important for his legacy to live on, please watch Seed: The Untold Story and check out their handy Discussion Guide for bitesize nuggets of information and shareable educational tools to help you take part in the campaign to smash the crap out of hideous, world guzzling corporations like Monsanto.I really enjoyed reading/listening to interviews with Esiah from The Green Conspiracy, Roots and All Podcast and The Table Magazine (images and interview by Maria Bell)