BY JILLIAN LAUREL STEINBERGER
PHOTOS AND ONLINE VIDEO BY SCOTT PETERSON
“In the last 30 years, seed has become a commodity that’s bought, sold, and traded like any other commodity—like oil, like minerals—when really, seed is a resource that’s best shared, stewarded, and governed within a community.”
—Matthew Dillon, Seed Matters
Rebecca Newburn was looking forward to sowing more good news about seeds. A middle-school math teacher and East Bay resident, Newburn is the “It Woman” of seed libraries. She was scheduled to train 20 librarians from Maryland’s Eastern Shore Regional Library system on how to start up seed libraries at their branches. She started the first public-library-housed seed bank in 2012 at the Richmond Public Library. It was designed to be a replicable model to enable other communities to easily launch their own seed libraries. Newburn also began tracking new seed libraries as they opened and started a communication network.
As in the East Bay, a new interest in saving and sharing heirloom seeds had taken off around the nation, and Newburn and her colleagues wanted their collections to follow a set of best practices. “I am very interested in sustainability, and I realized that if we don’t have access to locally grown seed that this is a huge gap in terms of our ability to be resilient,” said Newburn, who first acquired skills at the Ecology Center’s BASIL Seed Library in Berkeley before receiving advanced training in developing and managing collections.
To date, there are well over 300 seed libraries housed in public libraries in 46 states.
Seed Libraries in Jeopardy
|WHAT IS A SEED LIBRARY?Seeds libraries are institutions that lend seeds or share them with the public—generally library members. A library’s “collection”—its seeds—is usually acquired through donations from members, who are typically gardeners and farmers who harvested the seeds from their own plants, or from seed companies. Members may check out seed from the library’s collection; then, ideally, they grow them into plants, harvest and save the seeds, and return them to the library for others to check out. Besides the satisfaction of sharing, members help preserve agricultural biodiversity by focusing on rare, local, and heirloom seed varieties. They also help develop climate-adapted plants that grow well in their locale—a building block of food security.
But then there was a surprise. Last summer a librarian from the Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, called seeking help. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture had notified her library that although it was not selling seeds, it must still comply with the state’s 2004 Seed Act, which regulates the sale and distribution of seeds. In addition to licensing seed distributors, the law requires seeds to be rigorously tested according to industrial standards, and labeled with each seed variety’s germination test dates, sell by dates, lot numbers, seed types, etc.
The industrial-scale requirements were onerous. The library was in no position to become a licensed seed distributor. Nor could it afford to pay for the rigorous testing of small, highly diverse bits of seed gathered from community members. Hence the library would have to purchase and share commercial seed to stay in compliance. The library could not include community seed in its collection, nor lend it—the original intention.
The seed library model was now in jeopardy based on legal precedent. Soon Maryland adopted Pennsylvania’s new protocol word-for-word, and Newburn’s training was canceled. Then Minnesota and Nebraska adopted similar protocols.
Fortunately, California’s seed libraries appear to be safe. “There is a strong seed-saving community in California, and a strong alternative ag culture here that supports seed saving. If the California Department of Agriculture chose to regulate seed libraries there would be a lot of public support to resist that legislation,” says Neil Thapar, a staff attorney at Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Berkeley.
Organizers like Thapar and Newburn acknowledge that seed laws were passed with good intentions: to protect farmers and build food security by stopping unscrupulous seed dealers from selling seed that was not as described, had seed-borne disease that destroyed crops, or didn’t germinate as promised.
“Unfortunately, state administrators are applying these laws without applying reason,” says Matthew Dillon of Seed Matters, a project of the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which is funding advocacy efforts.
“Seed libraries are not selling seed, and the recipients know that by accepting free seed saved in their neighbors’ backyards there might be a few weed seeds, or germination rates could be a little lower than in commercial seed.”
“It’s an overreach on the part of regulators,” adds Thapar, who notes that community seed libraries were never in mind when lawmakers developed regulations.
Newburn sums it up. “We all agree that seed laws are valuable. They’re there for a good reason, to protect farmers. However, the scale of what we’re doing is very different. We’re sharing seed at the home-scale, which is what we’ve been doing for thousands of years with our neighbors. We’re not commercial seed companies.”
From the East Bay to the Nation
Organizers in the East Bay have propelled the national campaign to keep seed libraries free of unrealistic regulations. Meetings are usually held over the phone and include activists from around the United States. “I’m in on those calls,” says ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, a co-founder of the seed bank movement of the early 1980s, who mentors the group.
The author of 26 books, Nabhan is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant for his role in both the heirloom seed and local food movements. “The organizers are terrific people because they think strategically and have everyone’s best interest in mind. They’re doing a great job demonstrating to state administrators that there is no threat from seed libraries,” says Nabhan.
Dillon says that because Seed Matters helped many of these seed libraries get off the ground, the organizations felt a responsibility to do something when state officials started to shut them down. “When we saw SELC stepping up to address the issue, we reached out and offered funding to help them be a problem solver.” Shareable.net, a nonprofit news, action, and connection hub dedicated to spreading the idea of a sharing economy, is also a partner.
Strategy on the Ground—Well, the Soil, that Is
“The best strategy is to have public librarians around the country demonstrate to the state inspectors that this is not a threat to anything. The public librarians are the best spokespersons because they are civil servants just like the state inspectors,” says SELC’s Thapar.
In the meantime, organizers are pushing for clarifications on seed laws, state by state. They are working to understand the issues, looking for solutions, and have launched a petition to show officials that the libraries have value for tens of thousands of people. As this magazine went to press, the petition, which is housed at SeedMatters.org, has gathered almost 17,000 signatures.
SELC provides legal support by interpreting seed laws and drafting policy proposals—including standard template language that can easily be adopted by all the states. Although the working group would like to write a new law for California, they have prioritized states where seed libraries are at risk or have already been undermined.
The project includes a “crowdsourcing analysis,” which collects research, analysis, and reports on all 50 states’ seed laws in one place. Housed at Hackpad.com, this Seed Law Tool Shed helps seed libraries navigate the rules and protect themselves from being restricted or even shut down. They will share what they learn in “plain language legal guides and webinars.”
Nabhan, who is based in Arizona, recently visited the East Bay where he gave a talk on “Conservation You Can Taste” at Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland. (See his publication of the same name available at garynabhan.com.) “What I was talking about is that now we have four times as much seed diversity in U.S. gardens, farms, and markets as we did three decades ago thanks to the seed saving movement.” He adds, “We’ve gained biodiversity in our fields and gardens rather than lost it because of this enormous grassroots effort.”
Libraries are a recent step in the development of the seed movement—and if the activists have anything to do with it, seed libraries that gather and disseminate community seed are here to stay. The benefit? Increased literacy about and access to fresh food, and the adaptation of seed genetics to climate change locally. Therein lies the profound and lasting value of seed libraries.
To: Directors of all 50 U.S. State Departments of AgricultureOver 300 nonprofit seed libraries in the U.S. might be regulated out of existence due to misapplication of seed laws by several state departments of agriculture.
Update: The petition above is no longer active. Here’s updated info on seed-saving laws from the Sustainable Economies Law Center: https://www.theselc.org/save_seed_sharing