Setting the Record Straight on the Legality of Seed Libraries

The seed library at the Potrero Hill branch Library
The seed library at the Potrero Hill branch Library

After the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture cracked down on a seed bank in the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, hundreds of seed libraries in the U.S. are suddenly wondering if they are breaking the law. According to Pennsylvania regulators, in order to give out member-donated seeds, the Simpson Seed Library would have to put around 400 seeds of each variety through impractical seed testing procedures in order to determine quality, germination rate, and so on. The result of the Pennsylvania crackdown is that the library will no longer give out seeds other than those which are commercially packaged.

Ironically, this is in the name of “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America.” In this news article that went viral, regulators said that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario.” In reality, seed libraries have emerged to protect our food sources and ensure access to locally adapted and heirloom varieties. The public’s access to seeds has been decreasing since a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that a life-form could be patented. Since then, big seed companies have shifted away from open-pollinated seeds to patented hybridized and genetically engineered varieties. The companies prohibit farmers from saving and replanting such seeds, requiring that they buy new seeds each year. Counter to this trend, seed libraries give members free seeds and request that members later harvest seed and give back to the library thereby growing the pool of seeds available to everyone.

Seed Law Basics

It’s important to set the record straight about the legalities of seed libraries. Let’s begin with the basics: In every state, there are laws requiring seed companies to be licensed, test seeds, and properly label them. At the federal level, there is a comparable law governing seed companies that sell seeds interstate. All of these laws exist for good reason: If a tomato grower buys 10,000 tomato seeds, the grower’s livelihood is on the line if the seeds turn out to be of poor quality or the wrong variety. Seed laws, like other truth-in-labeling laws, keep seed companies accountable, prevent unfair competition in the seed industry, and protect farmers whose livelihoods depend on access to quality seeds. The testing and labeling of the seeds also helps to prevent noxious weeds and invasive species from getting into the mix.

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