Thursday, August 21, 2014

Seed Libraries Are Not Commercial Enterprises

 First, all seed offered to library patrons to check out should be from a licensed seed dealer, properly labeled, and in date for the calendar year.  Each year would require updated seed packets from a seed dealer.  Returning any seeds to the library would not be allowed; meetings to swap harvested seeds are encouraged instead. Lois Capshaw, Chief, Turf & Seed Section, Maryland Department of Agriculture

With the recent rash of legal attention on seed libraries, I am appalled at the lack of recognition from Departments of Agriculture in both Pennsylvania and Maryland that seed libraries fulfill an important, I would say 'vital,' part of our food infrastructure that ensures we have a vibrant and viable food system in this country. Seed libraries go beyond what commercial seed companies can do and fill a niche left sadly neglected for the most of the past 50 years.

These agencies want to treat us as commercial seed houses, when in fact, we are nothing like commercial seed houses.  They have said (as above) that seed libraries should buy fresh seed every year to distribute to their members. That admits an appalling  lack of appreciation for what we actually do.  

A seed library operates outside of the commercial marketplace because the commercial market place has failed us.  The seeds we want are already no longer offered or are in danger of being discontinued in short order.  

This chart, from National Geographic, July 2011, dramatically shows the loss of biodiversity that has been lost.  This chart poignantly illustrates the loss of diversity in about 80 years. That we allowed this loss of biodiversity in the first place is stunning and there is no commercially viable way to return to the diversity of long ago. Most of this loss was incurred because of the lack of diversity in seed companies. As seed companies purchased other seed companies, diversity was lost in order to remain profitable.

Seed libraries, outside the constraints of profit/loss, are able to curate collections of seeds that can counter that erosion of biological diversity so central to the idea of a robust food system. We cannot (will not) depend on outside sources for seed as that defeats one of our primary purposes - to grow and maintain locally adapted seeds.  A part of the folly of modern agriculture is the loss of the concept that all farming (gardening) is local in nature and cannot be consolidated into the hands of even super-regional companies, let alone the huge multi-nationals that rule the roost today.  The loss of our food crops' biodiversity, with incumbent chances of massive crop failures, invites a compromised food system dependent on a few corporations that are as blind as the regulators trying to regulate them and us in the same breath.  We are, in this respect, no better off than Ireland c 1840 and the potato famine, as far as the gene pool for our primary food crops.  Seed libraries form a backstop to this loss of biodiversity and keep alive the varieties that have fed humans over hundreds of years.  Seed libraries are an absolute essential part of a vibrant food supply, augmenting the commercial sector with varieties that are no longer carried or marginalized in their distribution.  It used to be considered that varieties dropped by seed companies were poorly performing ones, but we can now see the consolidation of the seed industries caused far too many varieties to be dropped in favor of a better balance sheet.  This may be acceptable business practice but unacceptable food policy.  

From about 800 members of SLOLA, probably 150 are serious about saving seeds - they are good gardeners and good seed stewards:  They know what they are doing, no one is mistaking noxious weeds for broccoli or green beans.  From those 150, there are about 30 that have the land, the time and the knowledge, and upon these people, most of the seed saving devolves.  This year, I am growing out one tomato (Burbank's Slicer - a program I have invested four years of breeding effort), three beans (Pencil Pod, a Native American tepary bean and a family heirloom from Italy almost lost when the current family member didn't grow it out for many years) and two corn varieties (Country Gentleman, aka Shoepeg, and Mohawk Red Bread).  One person can contribute a lot if they know what they are doing and controlling the pollination as needed.  
Luther Burbank Red Slicer Tomatoes
harvested for seed.
Of those, Burbank's Slicing Tomato has been discontinued by almost all commercial seed houses.  It is not easy to find the seed - we are working with the seed to restore the Slicer to the size it was when Burbank introduced it in the beginning of the last century. The Seed Library of Los Angeles hopes to get it back into the shape Luther gave to us and then get this seed back in the trade - it is too valuable a tomato to let go by the wayside - and besides, it's Luther Burbank!  But it probably isn't a commercially viable project - it's a seed library project and the passion of a couple people for all things Burbank.

The Pineschi bean has been in the Pineschi family since they emigrated to the US from Italy.  Passed from generation to generation, the bean had not been grown out successfully for many years.  We were gifted a spice jar of these bean seeds and from our original 100 beans planted, only four plants produced.  We will work for years on this bean to get enough seed to be able to offer it to our members and give a quantity of fresh seed back to the family.  That is not a commercially viable project.  But what price can one put on living family heirlooms? 

The Mohawk Red Bread Corn is an experiment, my first year growing it out.  If it works well, I will be happy to try my hand at making cornbread (one of my personal comfort foods) with it. And eventually this rare indigenous variety will be available to the members of the seed library.  

Vibrant and viable seed libraries are essential to our lives today as agriculture continues to amalgamate and narrow its focus down to only a few crops that, with government subsidies, are profitable for farmers. Our food supply may soon one day depend, at least in part, on local libraries.  These libraries must be robust and viable. 

The past 50 years - over my lifetime - have proven to me we cannot trust such vital matters to industry or government.  The focus in both cases is wrong - misled by balance sheets and seduced by the large corporation version of feeding the world.  Seeds are life. "Yo soy maize" ("I am corn") is heard a lot in our Latin American communities.  We 
are all the seeds we grow.  That simple, profound truth must be our guiding light and cannot be given over to large corporations.  it remains a local community effort in all cases and preserves more seed in aggregate than the much touted seed bank at Svalbard possibly can. 

As it stands now, there is dispute that the law means what the departments of ag say it means.  There are different interpretations, but certainly, seed libraries do not circumvent the spirit of the law.  We are not commercial enterprises.  But we perform a viable service that is not approached in the commercial seed business today.  The work we do is vital on this one issue alone - and there is certainly much more.

There must be an absolute guarantee that we can keep our seeds for redistribution to our members - this is not negotiable.  Way too much work and time goes into selecting a variety for performance year after year; to put that time and effort at risk is patently unacceptable. People who do this work, know what they are doing and do it well. We must be permitted to accept seeds back from our members -that is how our library grows. Neither of these practices are open for discussion:  they are the heart and soul of seed libraries and we can brook no compromise in this position. 

My grandfather saved his seeds for most of his 90 year life time. The only time he bought seed was if he had a crop failure.

I should one day be so fortunate.


Purchasing fresh seeds annually is unacceptable because:
a.) the seeds are not now, or soon might not be, available
b.) seeds brought in fresh each year are not adapted to local conditions
c.) seeds purchased each year is an expense people in marginalized communities cannot bear
d.) indigenous peoples' seeds are never maintained by commercial seed houses - the only way they are propagated and distributed in the main is through non-commercial seed libraries and exchanges
e.)  the seeds already being grown locally comprise a viable and valuable gene pool that must be curated to avoid losing that biological diversity
f.) the only way for a bioregion to be food secure is through seed security - in other words, having our own seeds already in the community and not being dependent on large corporations with balance sheets that do not care if people in our local community can afford to eat

Monday, August 4, 2014

Are Seed Libraries Illegal?

Recently a story came across our Facebook feed that told of an action taken by the Pennsylvania Dept of Agriculture that seemed foreboding.  In brief, the PA Dept of Agriculture, went to an organizing meeting for a new seed library in the town's public library (a senior official and ag agents!) and claimed it posed a threat of "eco-terrorism" urging the community library to disband the project, which, of course, they did.  After reading the story, a number of SLOLA members had a fast and furious correspondence on Facebook supplemented by text messages and phone calls; was this a concern we could be facing?  The answer appears to be: Definitely a maybe.

Showing children the seeds, letting them touch them
and see the amazing diversity of just one plant: corn.

We found the California codes on the same subject and they had the same wording as the Pennsylvania codes - in fact, we have learned since that almost every state uses the same language, taken from the Federal laws, so there is consistency. So it seems that Pennsylvania could be the harbinger of future actions in other states.  The language that seems to be critical to seed libraries comes towards the top of the code, in definitions, where it states: 

"Sell" includes offer for sale, expose for sale, possess for sale, exchange, barter or trade."

The italics are mine.  That is where I think seed libraries seem to cross with this law. Until this action, state departments of agriculture have not thought of seed libraries as dens of terrorists or people proposing to grow noxious weeds, but who knows what lurks in the hearts of Pennsylvanian gardeners?  After all, it is the home of the Rodale 'empire' and Mike McGrath, gardening radio personality with a decidedly irreverent streak, and all those Amish seed savers and William Woys Weaver.  I can fathom where they begin to see their seed saving gardeners as truly a hotbed of insurrection.  However, there appears, at least to me, some wiggle room around this wording - after all, do we barter, exchange or trade?  Are we not simply 'lending' seeds to members who have agreed to our model of seed saving?  

If this does apply to seed libraries, we are in for some interesting times ahead because, it seems, we will be responsible for seed germination tests, and labeling requirements.  I'm sure we can find ways around this (declare the seed to be 'substandard' and do away with subjecting our seeds to the germ test entirely). But that's only two of many requirement and the totality of these laws might make seed libraries an onerous burden to the public libraries that house many of them.  We have questions, but at this time no answers.

In the meantime, SLOLA is seeking a pro bono attorney to help us decipher the legalese.  Look for more information on this and our responses to it coming up.  We aren't going away and hopefully all seed libraries can use whatever we find in regards this legal morass

Keep your dial on this station - as some folks say, "more will be revealed."


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Greenpeace GMO Video

Found on Facebook today and for those who don't do Facebook, I'm embedding it here. This is probably the most succinct four minutes on GMOs you'll ever watch.  It covers all the main points in such density, I found it best to watch several times to take it all in. Very well done, Greenpeace!


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Work Of A Seed Library

Beans with a history 
When immigrants left their homes heading for a new home in a distant land, they took that which they valued.  For many of them, some of their most important possessions were the family seeds, handed down from generations for longer than many could remember.  

One such family immigrating from Italy, those seeds were of beans.  They brought the seeds for the family bean to America and like many Italians, settled in Chicago.  The beans continued to be a part of the family's table fare and, their longevity as a part of the family, made them seem to be almost a member of the family - dinners in summer and early fall without this bean, were a part of the family's tradition.  

The beans finally came to be under the stewardship of a man who moved his family to Los Angeles.  They settled into a home near the Pacific Ocean and planted the beans.  The crop failed - and no one was certain why.  This was the story for year after year.  Finally, one day, I was sitting in the dental chair in the office of this man with the Italian family bean.  He was pretty excited to hear that I was growing out old heirloom seed varieties and I was very interested in growing out his family bean.

After a couple of false starts, I found about 100 bean seeds in my hand at the best time in Los Angeles to plant beans and they went into the ground.  I planted only 50 seeds, observing the principle of seed savers to never exhaust all the seeds you have of any one variety.  Of the 50 seeds, only one germinated.  Victor gave me more seeds and I planted 50 more - with three germinating.  I decided to hold off planting the rest - I could try them again next year if this crop failed entirely.  

I have some fairly healthy plants and furthermore, even though they are still very young plants, they have dozens of very long beans on them.  The seeds are not that large and the pods are prolific.  

I have cautioned many students not to 'count their beans before they're soup' but I can't help myself from the joy I feel with the new crop of this bean.  We will keep all the seeds we get this year, but next year, we'll return a large packet to the family and we'll start to offer limited amounts of beans of this heirloom to our members.  

I hope we do this kind of project a lot in the coming years.  Each saved variety hold genetic diversity that we have been losing for over 100 years.  SLOLA and seed libraries all over the US are working to ensuring we have more diversity in our diets and the wealth of a vibrant food system; part of our mission and passion.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Open Source Seed Initiative

You might have seen the hubbub on Facebook when they first launched the Open Source Seed Initiative on April 17th - many of us were euphoric that the idea of Open Source software was going to tried on seeds. A lot of what this means is yet to be explained, but the excitement remains.  

This blog is written using Open Office Writer, the open source equivalent of Microsoft's Office software suite.  I used the Microsoft product for most of my 17 years working in a university setting; now making my living working with not-for-profits and as a teacher/lecturer and a writer, I am very grateful for Open Office - it's not as polished as the Microsoft product and the documentation/help offered is really rudimentary, but most of the users of Open Office find those inconveniences a small bother when they compare the price.   Those geeks using Open Office have no problem for the lack of documentation, that's why they are called geeks!  

So Open Source technology has worked for software and other applications which makes it an interesting paradigm for seeds.  This effort is underway and there are already some 30 vegetable varieties offered as Open Source seeds, with the Open Source Seed Pledge on the packet, which reads:  This Open Source Seed Pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet you pledge that you will not restrict others' use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives you will acknowledge the source of these seeds and accompany your transfer with this pledge."  

I fully support this initiative.  Over the past years, I have read of large multi-national companies (no one need name names like Monsanto or the other big ag bullies) taking indigenous peoples seed stock, using that genetic material to make their hybrids and then selling the new seed back to the people from whom the raw genetic material was taken from to begin with!  Of course, when taking the genetic material no monetary value was assigned and the raw material was essentially stolen.  Even if they had paid for it, it still would have been essentially stolen because no where near the value of those genes would have been paid.  

While this still causes a great deal of concern, we in the United States can begin to apply this to our seeds at once.  Hopefully other countries' legal structure either do allow for this kind of contract or will soon.   While working on new strains of vegetables in The Learning Garden, I have often thought it would be a shame that I would have to patent any new variety I might be able to introduce even though I am fundamentally and religiously opposed to the idea of patenting life, but until now I had no other mechanism to prevent others from patenting the material and I certainly do not want any of my work ending up in the madness of un-controlled gene splicing.  

Look for more articles on this in the future.  This is one the most exciting events in the seed world since the Whealys sent out their first list of heirloom seeds to potential seed savers. 

It's an exciting time to be on the front lines of saving our genetic heritage.

Additional source material from:


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Urban Ag Movie and Panel Discussion: Growing Cities

I am privileged to serve on a panel after the viewing of this documentary along with Alexa Delwiche and Teague Weybright, two folks I've had the chance to work with in these past few years. Both are profoundly knowledgeable and I'm sure this will be a marvelous evening of provocative thinking and vision.

The Los Angeles Community Garden Council presents…

Sunday  June 1, 2014

3:45 to 6:00PM 

Park La Brea Movie Theater
475 S. Curson Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036

3:45PM – Arrive and enjoy healthy snacks.
4:00PM – The 60 minute movie starts.
5:00-6:00PM – Refreshments & discussion with local urban agriculture experts:
> Teague Weybright, Board President, LACGC
> Alexa Delwiche, Managing Dtr, LA Food Policy Council
> David King. Founding Chair, Seed Library of LA.

Adults: $14.00
Under 18: $10.00

To purchase tickets and get more information, go to:

Sponsored by:  LACGC & the Park La Brea Residents Association


Sunday, May 11, 2014

National Famine Commemoration Day

Falling on the same day as Mother's Day in the United States, National Famine Commemoration Day is a Republic of Ireland day of memory for the Great Famine.  

The Great Famine occurred 1845 through 1850, with what is known as Black 47, being the worst.  If you have heard me lecture on The Great Famine you know there is much we can learn from the death that swept through the Irish homeland.  

Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879),
one town in Ireland horribly afflicted by
the Great Famine.
Without going into the whole ramifications of British policy and the lack of compassion for a starving populace, this famine forever changed Ireland in many ways.  The number of deaths is put at over one million with another million emigrating (mostly to the United States).  Ireland's population declined over 20% in those years and is only now beginning to approach pre-famine levels.  

The Irish, because of poverty and an onerous legal system which put them at the mercy of ruling British officials, had come to depend solely on the potato for food.  It could be planted and harvested without tools, the potato can be cooked and even eaten without utensils and provided not too shabby of a diet.  But the Irish grew only two varieties of potato:  The Lumper and the Green Apple, both of which were highly susceptible to the Potato Blight that swept Europe prior to 1845.  When the blight hit Ireland, it went through the potato crop like a hot knife through butter.  The Irish watched their only food supply rot in the ground overnight.  

You might be inclined to think, "So?"  But one of the lessons humans might have learned from the Great Famine would be to not plant so much of only one crop and especially without some genetic diversity in that one crop.

Let's think about the number of items in our supermarkets that are made from corn.  What would happen if the corn crop in the US suddenly were to be the victim of a pathogen? Do you realize that most of the millions of acres of corn in the United States are very similar - like the Irish potatoes - genetically?   Try to imagine a supermarket from which corn or corn derivatives are no longer there.  What do you come up with - how many empty shelve on how many aisles?  It is apparent our government has not learned from history. What's that line, "Those who know history are doomed to watch those who don't know history repeat it without fail."  It's enough for an ulcer. Or high blood pressure.  

We are affluent and have a good deal of political will which the Irish did not have.  The seed library movement is one way we can move to prevent or, at the very least, ameliorate the effects of such a pathogen destroying our food crops.  First off, begin to grow some of your own food - to the degree you can, become independent from the supermarket near you.  Encourage your family and friends to join with you in finding ways to avoid the supermarket and to grow more of your own food.  

And above all, acknowledge that the only way to be Food Secure is to be Seed Secure. Imperative in this, we need to plant a diversity of all types of our foods and to have plenty of different genetic varieties in abundance.  If a blight takes out one, another will survive.  One of the most troubling characteristics of our food supply as proffered by the multi-national corporations is a huge loss of genetic diversity.  We must find that diversity and re-establish that as our hallmark of famine prevention.  The only way to abundance is through changing this lack of diversity.  

We can do a lot to prevent a repeat of food famine like the famines that cursed Ireland.  Let's take a moment of this remembrance day to reflect on what we can do now.  The Seed Library of Los Angeles meets May 17th in the Learning Garden on the campus of Venice High School at the intersection of Walgrove Avenue and Venice Blvd.  Check out our website too.