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Seed money

A proposed urban garden near Lake Eola is burdened by ties to a giant agribusiness

Photo: DavePlotkin, License: N/A


Photo: , License: N/A

Eola Garden community engagement meeting, hosted by Melissa Barron

Thursday, Sept. 29 at 5:30 p.m.
Urban ReThink

When Tia Meer first heard the proposal for the garden, she was ecstatic. Her colleague Richard Powell says he was “grinning from ear to ear.” At the July 20 Organic Growers meeting held at Leu Gardens, a woman named Melissa Barron announced that she had permission from the city of Orlando to plant a vegetable garden in the long-vacant patch of land next to the Panera Bread near Lake Eola, on Robinson Street. Barron’s boyfriend, the ubiquitous downtown developer Craig Ustler, came up with the idea for his unused, .35-acre piece of land more than two years ago when the real estate slump showed no signs of letting up. But neither Ustler nor Barron are experienced gardeners, so they needed the help of those who were – people like Meer and Powell. Ideally, once the garden was producing food, Ustler’s three downtown restaurants would have a supply of fresh, local produce, while Meer, the president of the Simple Living Institute, and Powell, at the time an assistant manager for the Homegrown Local Food Cooperative, would have the opportunity to spread the gospel of growing one’s own food through hands-on educational programs. It was “a dream come true,” according to Meer, who had already been searching for ways her organization could “give city folk an opportunity to experience the process of growing food.”

There was, however, one caveat. Barron said that the garden would have a corporate sponsor: her employer, Syngenta Professional Products. Meer had never heard of the company, so she did some research when she got home from the meeting. What she found frightened her: Syngenta, headquartered in Switzerland, is a multibillion dollar business specializing in the production of genetically modified seeds, as well as pesticides and herbicides. From the perspective of Meer and like-minded organic growers, it’s a conglomerate comparable in destructive potential to the Monsanto Co., which is known for its “ruthless legal battles against small farmers,” as Vanity Fair put it in a 2008 story on the company. When it was clear that Syngenta’s involvement was non-negotiable, Meer and Powell withdrew their support. Without the endorsement of the city’s de facto “gardening authorities,” Powell figured, the idea was dead. But earlier this month, he learned that Barron was moving forward with plans for the Eola Garden. Powell sounded an alarm on Facebook: “Community garden or corporate profit positioning?” he wrote. The message spread throughout Orlando’s network of organic growers, and in turn, so did the notion that the tendrils of Big Ag had spread to Orlando’s local growing community.

According to Barron, the Eola Garden is slated to be a fenced-in “private urban garden,” not a “community garden,” as Powell called it. “We never used the C-word,” Barron says. Still, despite the fact that neither the land nor the project nor the vegetables’ final destination is public, local growers worry about the interactive classes in the garden planned for Howard Middle School students. Emily Ruff, director of the Florida School of Holistic Living, fears that a garden associated with Syngenta will give students a perverted idea of sustainability. She mentions the “terminator gene,” a genetic modification that causes a crop’s second-generation seeds to be sterile. In theory, this guarantees that growers will need to purchase new seeds with each planting season, hence, funneling more money into agribusiness companies that sell them. “It’s not a way to keep a farm in business – it’s a way to keep a corporation in business,” Ruff says. “I certainly consider it a poor example of sustainability to be teaching those middle schoolers.” (Though Syngenta reportedly holds several patents on terminator technology, it also maintains a policy prohibiting the commercial production of terminator seeds.)

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