Richmond gardeners defend library seed exchanges following Pennsylvania crackdown

The Seed Lending Library is located at Richmond's main library.

Gardeners nationwide are “on alert” following a crackdown by Pennsylvania regulators on a library seed exchange program, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

But Richmond’s green thumbs are prepared to defend the noncommercial exchange of seeds in their city, where access to healthy food options is scant.

The issue recently sprouted when the seed exchange at Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pa. closed after regulators said the program violated state law requiring distributed seeds to be tested and prescriptively stored and labeled. It might be the first time a state has targeted the burgeoning seed-sharing movement, the Journal said in its story, and there are fears in the movement that other states will launch similar crackdowns.

Rebecca Newburn, co-founder and coordinator of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, which started in 2010 and operates out of the city’s main public library, said the local program has not received a warning from regulators.

Even so, leaders of the local movement have been discussing the Simpson Seed Library closure and preparing a response, Newburn said.

Concerns among regulators are that untested seeds could spread invasive species, diseases and poor seed quality due to cross pollination.

Richmond gardeners say they share those concerns but contend that existing regulations are intended for the commercial sale of seeds, particularly large-scale operations selling genetically modified versions.

At library exchanges, local growers say, the seeds are lent, not sold. The growers also note a lack of incidences of sicknesses or injury from seeds borrowed from hundreds of library seed exchanges across the nation.

Newburn sent the Richmond Standard some notes on how the local homegrown seed movement plans to respond to the Pennsylvania case.  Below is a segment from the notes entitled “protecting food supplies is a serious concern.”

Newburn also recommended this article by two lawyers entitled “Setting the Record Straight on Seed Libraries.”

Protecting food supplies is a serious concern by Richmond Grows:
Most seed libraries agree that protecting our food supply is a serious concern and that seed libraries can play an important role in strengthening our communities’ access to healthy food.
Seed libraries are a repository of seed for the benefit of the public. They are a commons where free seed is distributed to provide increased food security, an opportunity to improve the health of our community members, to help preserve our compromised biodiversity, to celebrate local varieties that are important to our community’s cultural heritage and to provide seed that is locally adapted to our rapidly changing climate.
For many communities, seed libraries provide access to locally grown food where little may be available. This access is especially important in communities that are food deserts or where people are struggling with food insecurity. Providing free seed enables people to feed wholesome food to their families and by saving seed they can ensure their food supply in the future.
There have been no incidences of seeds borrowed from a seed library causing injury or sickness. The concern that seed libraries could be an avenue for “agri-terrorism” is unfounded as it extremely unlikely that a terrorist would put seeds in hundreds of seed libraries. Of more concern is the current model of big agricultural with its centralization of our food supply and reliance on a few select varieties. This centralization puts our system at considerable risk due to its susceptibility to disease that could wipe out significant portions of our food supply.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and other state DOAs have a reason to be concerned with noxious weeds at the scale in which they work and the state laws are written to protect farmers who rely on quality seed. In corporate agriculture, fields that are grown for seed are mechanically harvested, and the inclusion of noxious weeds can be disbursed not only within their state but across the country. As much of the processing and sowing is done by machine and the quantities are large, ensuring that noxious weeds are not in the mix is a valid concern on that scale. However, on the community scale, people have been saving and sharing seeds for 12,000 years without the need of regulations. When someone harvests tomatoes from her yard, her hands and eyes are involved in the process and it is unlikely that noxious weeds are included. The people that borrow the seeds take a few seeds and can clearly see if anything is different and they are unlikely to select or plant those seeds. Assuming that something did pass all that inspection, once the gardener plants the seeds she would weed and hence, the spread of noxious weeds is near impossible through a seed library.”