Seed Libraries Fight for the Right to Share
State crackdowns heighten interest in this alternative to conglomerate farming
Tessah Wickus (left), director of Northern Wisconsin's Seed Savers Alliance, says seed libraries help more young people become farmers.
Photo courtesy of Cable Community Farm
It’s easy to take seeds for granted. Tiny dry pods hidden in packets and sacks, they make a brief appearance as gardeners and farmers collect them for future planting then later drop them into soil. They are not “what’s for dinner,” yet without them there would be no dinner. Seeds are the forgotten heroes of food—and of life itself.
Sharing these wellsprings of sustenance may sound innocuous enough, yet this increasingly popular exchange—and wider seed access—is up against a host of legal and economic obstacles. The players in this surreal saga, wherein the mere sharing of seeds is under attack, range from agriculture officials interpreting seed laws, to powerful corporations expanding their proprietary and market control.
Seed libraries—a type of agricultural commons where gardeners and farmers can borrow and share seed varieties, enriching their biodiversity and nutrition—have sprouted up across the U.S. in recent years, as more Americans seek connection to food and the land. This new variety of seed sharing has blossomed from just a dozen libraries in 2010 to more than 300 today. The sharing of seeds “represents embedded knowledge that we’ve collected over 10,000 years,” says Jamie Harvie, executive director of the Institute for a Sustainable Future, based in Duluth, Minnesota. “Healthy resilient communities are characterized not by how we control other people, and more about valuing relationships.”
As Harvie suggests, seed libraries offer a profound alternative to the corporate takeover of seeds, which has reached frightful proportions: according to the non-profit ETC Group, just three firms control more than half of the worldwide seed business (more than doubling their 22% share in 1996), while the top ten corporations now occupy 76 percent of the global market. Monsanto alone has 26 percent of the world’s seed market, with Du Pont and Syngenta not far behind.
A 2013 report by ETC Group shows the startling scope of the industry’s market power, across the panorama of seeds, agrochemicals, and genetics: Four firms control 58.2% of seeds; 61.9% of agrochemicals; 24.3% of fertilizers; 53.4% of animal pharmaceuticals; and, in livestock genetics, 97% of poultry and two-thirds of swine and cattle research.
Kristina Hubbard, communications director for the Organic Seed Alliance, sees a direct connection between corporate control and the seed-sharing movement. “I think community-based projects like seed libraries are at least in part a direct response to concerns people have about who controls our seed,” explains Hubbard. “It’s a necessary response, as seed industry consolidation continues and is increasing the vulnerability of our seed and food systems. We need more decision makers in the form of seed stewards, and more resiliency in our seed and food systems.”
Seed Libraries Rising
“Love the earth around you,” urges Betsy Goodman, a 27-year-old farmer in Western Iowa, where “most of the landscape is covered in uniform rows of corn and soybeans.” Working on an 11-acre organic farm that sprouts 140 varieties of tomatoes and 60 varieties of peppers, among other crops, Goodman has become something of a seed evangelist. In 2012, she launched the Common Soil Seed Library, just across the Missouri River in nearby Omaha, Nebraska—enabling area gardeners and farmers to borrow some 5,000 seed packets (112 different varieties) to date.
“It didn’t make sense to me that no one was perpetuating the cycle of seed and life,” says Goodman. “People have this idea that you put a seed in the ground, harvest your food, and let it die.” Goodman says she is working to perpetuate life. “The basis of our whole food system comes from the seed,” she says. “I think people are not generally conscious of how grateful we should be for our food diversity and wealth.”
Goodman sees the seed library as an essential reclaiming of farming traditions and local food security. “I want farmers to go back to saving seeds. It’s our responsibility to uphold our food system. It takes everybody.” But, she says, many farmers remain isolated and unaware of the seed-sharing movement. “The consciousness around this is not there yet. I haven’t really heard from farmers yet…The farmers buy their seed each year from Monsanto and Syngenta, this huge industrial system that’s very much in control of this state and surrounding states.” Farmers, she adds, “rely on these companies to buy their corn, they are very tied into these companies, and can’t even feed themselves off of the food they’re growing.”
Motivated by similar concerns, the Wisconsin Seed Savers Alliance has helped germinate six seed libraries (with three more on the way this spring) across five counties in the state’s economically isolated northeast, along the shores of Lake Superior.
“A lot of food grown here is shipped away,” says Alliance director Tessah Wickus. She explains that seed libraries are about “sharing the burden of growing food and making sure we all have something nutritious…We don’t have a whole lot of income sources, our schools are in the system for hot lunch programs, and we have a high poverty rate. One of the concerns here is food security and expanding local foods.”
While small in scale, Wisconsin’s seed library alliance has tapped a well of interest among new farmers and old, says Wickus, who is 25. “Sharing seeds is part of helping the next generation of farmers…[T]his is an integral part of how to survive and sustain yourself, how to pass along knowledge from one generation to another. People have a hunger to know where their food comes from, something we’ve lost.”
About 200 miles westward, on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, a new seed library offers varieties of sunflower, bean, corn and other seeds to residents—many of whom are poor and seeking a reconnection to indigenous food and farming. Most of the money here “goes off the reservation,” says Zachary Paige, farm manager at the White Earth Land Recovery Project. “This is one way to get the economy back on the reservation, and save money for food, instead of buying seeds from catalogs,” he says, while also “closing that loop in producing food.”
Paige (who is not Native American) helped start the White Earth Seed Library two years ago, and is working with local college and school garden projects to cultivate traditional seed varieties. He points to an indigenous tradition of growing and sharing food, and a revival of highly nutritious pre-Columbus crops, such as Bear Island Corn. Sharing seeds fits into a larger goal on the reservation of “trying to eat healthier and relieve diabetes.”
But all this seed-sharing love is butting up against some prodigious economic and regulatory challenges. As the libraries spread across the US, they are catching scrutiny from agriculture officials in states such as Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Iowa, who express concerns about unlabeled seed packets, and the spreading of contaminated seeds and noxious or invasive species.
One flashpoint in this battle is a small seed library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, which ran into a regulatory dispute with the state’s department of agriculture. Last June, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture informed an employee of the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library that its seed library ran afoul of state seed laws and would have to shut down or follow exorbitant testing and labeling rules intended for commercial seed enterprises. County Commissioner Barbara Cross raised the specter of terrorism, telling local media, “Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario,” she said. “Protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge...so you’ve got agri-tourism on one side and agri-terrorism on the other.”
The library was forced to limit its sharing, holding a special seed swapping event instead. As Mechanicsburg seed librarian Rebecca Swanger explained to media at the time, “We can only have current-year seeds, which means 2014, and they have to be store-purchased because those seeds have gone through purity and germination rate testing. People can't donate their own seeds because we can't test them as required by the Seed Act.”
While the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) insists that laws regulating large commercial seed companies do not apply to seed libraries, “other states are now considering adopting Pennsylvania’s seed protocol,” Shareable reported—potentially stopping the seed library movement in its tracks.
But Pennsylvania and some other states “have misapplied the law entirely,” says Neil Thapar, staff attorney at SELC, which is spearheading a national seed library campaign called Save Seed Sharing. Pennsylvania’s Seed Act, he says, “does not actually authorize the state agriculture department to regulate noncommercial seed sharing through seed libraries.”
Thapar argues that applying state seed laws to the libraries is “inappropriate because it violates the original spirit and intent of these laws. Seed laws were created solely as consumer protection laws to protect farmers from unscrupulous seed companies in the marketplace.” In contrast, seed sharing takes place outside of markets, as a “noncommercial activity in community.”
Minnesota’s budding seed library movement has encountered similar resistance. Last September, the state’s department of agriculture (MDA) informed the Duluth Seed Library that it was in violation of state seed laws that prohibit transferring ownership of seeds without comprehensive testing. Harvie, who helped organize the library effort in Duluth, recalls the crackdown “really shocked people…it seemed like an egregious overreach.”
Harvie says the Department of Agricultures enforcement nationally is galvanizing people to support seed libraries. “What people are asking is, who’s being hurt,” he says. “Nobody is being hurt. The only one anyone can imagine being hurt is the seed industry.”
Was the seed industry behind the MDA’s actions? Harvie does not suspect a conspiracy, but he notes, “There had to be some pressure, the [MDA] has plenty of other things to do. Perhaps the MDA knew that by purposefully enforcing the law, it would draw out support for saving.”
Minnesota’s Seed Program Advisory Group, which advises the MDA on state seed laws, meets three times a year and publishes no records of its meetings. Its members include major state commodity groups such as the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Soybean Growers Association, and the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association.
When the advisory group met last December, Harvie recalls, “I think the Department of Agriculture was excited for us to be at the meeting. It provided them with some community voice,” he says, “when too often it is only industry that can afford the time and expense of attending meetings. The lesson is, the community has to stand up and be present.”
With nationwide challenges to seed libraries, activists worry about a chilling effect on this nascent and increasingly popular form of seed-sharing. In Omaha, Nebraska, the community “has responded really well and been very supportive” of Common Soil’s initiative, says Goodman. “We’re not being attacked, we are being supported,” she says, by gardeners and lawmakers interested in putting the libraries on more solid legal ground. But, she adds, “I was approached by others across Nebraska who wanted to open seed libraries, but they were afraid they would put all this work in and get shut down.”
It remains unclear whether the seed industry has played any role in promoting the enforcement push, but this powerful agribusiness sector is vigilant about expanding its control over seeds. As first reported by MintPress News this January, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is peddling its “Pre-Emption of Local Agricultural Laws Act”—a law providing “exclusive regulatory power over agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed and products of agriculture seed, flower seed and vegetable seed to the state.” Despite the conservative mantra of “local control,” ALEC’s measure would prohibit local governments from enacting or enforcing measures to “inhibit or prevent the production or use of agricultural seed, flower seed or vegetable seed or products.”
Meanwhile, the American Seed Trade Association advocates for “Strong intellectual property protection,” to keep investment dollars flowing, and to “add value to agriculture and society through new products. Any state legislation that could undermine this simple principle is vigorously opposed.”
Asked for its stance on seed libraries, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated, “We have not received any formal complaints of mislabeled seed being distributed in interstate commerce through these programs (seed libraries).” The Federal Seed Act (FSA) governs “truthful labeling of agricultural and vegetable seed shipped in interstate commerce,” the agency said, adding, “It remains to be seen if any of the seed being obtained from these libraries will make it into interstate commerce.” Unless the seeds are shipped across state lines, or “determined to be a variety protected” under the federal Seed Act, the FSA “has no jurisdiction over this seed. Individual States will need to establish internal methods of dealing with labeling and possible mislabeling of the seed packets.”
Saving the Libraries
As state agriculture agencies consider whether to curtail seed libraries, legislative efforts are underway in Nebraska, Minnesota, and other states, to protect them. The Community Gardens Act [pdf] currently moving through the Nebraska legislature would exempt seed libraries from state laws governing seed labeling and testing. In December 2014, the city council of Duluth, Minnesota passed a resolution supporting seed sharing “without legal barriers of labeling fees and germination testing.”
Perhaps more significantly, the Duluth resolution advocated reforming the Minnesota Seed Law to “support the sharing of seeds by individuals and through seed libraries,” by exempting these forms of sharing from the law’s labeling, testing, and permitting requirements. After one reform measure was withdrawn from the Minnesota legislature, activists are gearing up for another legislative push soon.
In coming months, seed-sharing advocates can expect legislative battles across the US—some seeking to expand libraries’ sharing rights, and others limiting the exchange. Meanwhile, agribusiness continues to widen its economic and legal control over the world’s seed supply. “Seed sharing is an interactive and vibrant contrast to the extractive marketplace,” says Harvie. The battle over seed libraries and sharing represents “a clash of worldviews that just don’t reconcile.”
Despite the challenges, Goodman remains buoyant about the seed library movement. “It’s natural for companies to try to get power over this, but it’s our responsibility to push back and establish our freedom,” she says. “We are losing huge chunks of our food system, and it’s our responsibility to reclaim it. We have to be the ones to do it.”
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Nation, Mother Jones and elsewhere. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. www.christopherdcook.com.