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."