A slow raid is raging across the United States, and its targets are not what you’d expect. They’re often tucked into local libraries, stocked in vintage card catalogs, and wear handwritten labels scrawled with names like green zebra tomato, brown speckled tepary, and purple tomatillo. They are locally-adapted seed varieties shared between backyard gardeners and organic farmers in communities from Boston, Massachusetts, to Oakland, California. According to recent rulings in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois, the seed libraries that facilitate the free exchange of these rare legumes, vegetables, and fruits are “illegal seed distribution centers” under state law. In some communities, the libraries have been uprooted before even getting in the ground.
Humans have been sowing and sharing seeds for more than 10,000 years. Native Americans were perfecting maize crops in the United States long before Europeans arrived, and immigrants later brought kernels of their favorite foods to new soils to keep their home cultures alive.
But since the early 1900s, big changes in agriculture have taken place, namely the loss of 75 percent of plant diversity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that three quarters of our food today is produced from only 12 plant and five animal species. The main reason for the genetic consolidation of the food system is industrial patenting and other intellectual property schemes that have put five companies (mostly biotech and chemical giants like the current leader Monsanto) in charge of more than 60 percent of commercial seed.
Seed-lending libraries are one way communities have started to take back the collective food system, from seed to salad. There are currently more than 300 of these exchange centers across the United States. Most partner with local library branches and allow people to borrow and grow all types of produce. Once their harvest is complete, gardeners return seeds from their new crops to be borrowed again the following year.
All appeared to be sprouting smoothly until the Department of Agriculture stepped in. Last year, state regulators in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania shut down the community seed library after finding it in violation of the state seed law. The center is now only permitted to use seeds that are sold commercially, and members are required to destroy seeds at the end of each growing season. Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois have since passed similar measures. State officials argued that seed sharing could threaten the local food supply by distributing poison seeds, weeds or seeds that don’t produce, since the libraries don’t adhere to the same regulations (including labeling and germination testing) as the multi-billion-dollar seed industry.
Opponents of the recent backlash include Neil Thapar, an attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, who’s heading the organization’s seed sharing campaign. He says the laws were written for good reasons but are currently being misapplied.
“The laws regulate the quality of seeds that farmers get because their livelihoods depend on it,” Thapar says. “They were written to regulate commercial seed trade. But the law doesn’t work when something that refers to commercial activity is being applied to non-commercial activity.”
While there hasn’t been any clear indication of who or what is behind the latest crack down, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the big seed companies were starting to worry about seed libraries undoing some of the work they’ve achieved over the past 50 or 60 years.
“This is antithetical to their business model,” Thapar says, “so it would be in their interests to nip it in the bud.”
But the potential benefits of seed libraries are huge. They increase the availability of local and organic food, create better-adapted local varieties, and fight back against genetic erosion. This is why the Sustainable Economies Law Center provides free legal resources to communities about city and state food laws. The organization also helped launch a seed sharing petition, in partnership with Clif Bar’s Seed Matters initiative, aimed at adding an exemption in the Department of Agriculture’s seed enforcement policy for non-profit seed libraries.
“Seeds have been referred to as a commons that belong to all of us – not just one person or one company that can privatize or profit from them,” Thapar says. “We all have a responsibility to preserve them, and we all have the opportunity to benefit from them as well.”