Back in August, we learned of a crack-down in Pennslyvania due to certain activity at the Joseph T. Simpson Library in Mechanicsburg, activity so serious the state dispatched “a high-ranking official and lawyers to a meeting with the library.” Whatever had happened at this otherwise innocent-looking location to warrant such a response?
It seems the Simpson Library was in violation of the Pennsylvania Seed Act of 2004. A member of the Cumberland County Commission, where Mechanicsburg is located, quickly raised her voice and exclaimed, “Agri-terrorism.” Other Commissioners, however, more calmly wondered why the state had taken such interest in the local seed lending library, one among some 340 community libraries across the country at that time which had small seed-sharing programs.
Seeds brought to the library are carefully labeled, placed in small paper or plastic envelopes, then filed, typically using those wooden card catalogs of yesterday. Library patrons check out or “borrow” seeds and take them home to grow in the spring. If the seeds result in a good harvest, gardeners collect some seeds from the plants they’ve grown and replenish the library’s holdings the following fall.
How a seed-lending library works.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture somehow learned about the seed lending library in Mechanicsburg and swung into action. Certainly there is concern that seeds could be mis-labeled, resulting in introduction of invasive species, unwanted cross-pollination and even growth and spread of poisonous plants.
But there’s more, and that’s in Pennsylvania’s Seed Act of 2004 which focuses on selling of seeds but does contain language such as “The importing, consigning, offering for sale, selling, bartering or otherwise supplying seed in this Commonwealth” [emphasis added]—which apparently encompasses seed lending libraries. And behind all of that are sweeping, detailed state requirements, such as “Chapter 111. Seed Testing, Labeling and Standards, Section 111.1, Sampling and testing of seeds,” which are aimed at big seed companies and way beyond the scope of community libraries.
In the end, the Simpson Library had to accept that “we can only have current-year seeds … and they have to be store-purchased because those seeds have gone through purity and germination rate testing. People can’t donate their own seeds because we can’t test them as required by the Seed Act.”
And so, as things calmed down in Mechanicsburg, the library was planning to occasionally host seed-swap days where local folks could get together and exchange seeds between themselves, though the library would not be involved in any of the exchanges.
Actions in other states
Since those hot days in early August in Mechanicsburg, other states have begun looking into local seed libraries.
The Duluth Library in Minnesota, for example, has been told by the state Department of Agriculture that it is breaking the law “because it fails to meet the state’s requirements for testing and labeling seeds.”
The Minnesota Agriculture Department issued the Duluth Library a letter—“‘a nice letter,’” the state said—explaining state requirements for seed distribution, including mandatory testing of seeds, usually requiring growing 400 seeds of any one type at a time to “get a scientifically valid result.”
State Senator Roger Reinert plans to rise to the occasion, too, by proposing “an amendment to existing state law that would exempt seed libraries from testing and labeling requirements,” though all protections under current law would continue for seeds that are sold.
Essentially, Duluth is seeking to decriminalize a community seed-sharing program.
If Senator Reinert’s amendment is passed, that should resolve the matter in Minnesota, but what about Nebraska where David Svik of the state’s seed control office “said if the organizers of such libraries persist, he’ll likely seek guidance from a state attorney about how to proceed. The issue also might arise in the Nebraska Legislature.”
Latest news is that Maryland may join in by adopting policy that “the seed library cannot house or receive any locally saved seed and must dispose of all commercial seed at the end of the year.” And several other states are taking notice and indicating they might follow suit.
Cropland and BigAg
Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Nebraska, Maryland. In terms of agriculture, what do these states have in common? Much cropland.
Pennsylvania is touted as leading “the nation in the number of farms and acres permanently preserved for agricultural productions.”
Between 1982 – 2007, Minnesota, Nebraska and Maryland had increases of 100%+ in cropland concentrations (see Figure 4 at the link). In other words, these are states with large agricultural components.
Cropland consolidation, interestingly enough, occurred much more rapidly in areas where federal agricultural subsidies were highest. Those subsidies have their origin in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal; they were begun to help American farmers through the Depression years.
They’ve become so ingrained now that they have little to do with economic need among farmers “or the financial condition of the farm economy.”
Some might suggest they’ve become an entitlement!
In 2012, Minnesota agribusinesses received the fourth largest subsidy, or $952,169,124, from Uncle Sugar’s $20 billion “farm income stabilization” program. Nebraska ranked 7th with $780,381,986. Pennsylvania may have been 28th, but their $128,505,675 total is nonetheless impressive. Note that the bulk of federal farm subsidies is aimed toward corn and soybeans (including for ethanol), hay and wheat, while very small amounts go to farms producing fruits and vegetables that people directly consume.
Who would you expect to be involved with Big Agriculture? Why, ALEC, of course—the American Legislative Exchange Council. Among recent ALEC publications is one gem aimed specifically at protecting seeds from, and hang on to your hats for this one, local government. Yes, ALEC has developed model legislation reserving “exclusive regulatory power over agricultural seed, flower seed and vegetable seed and products of agriculture seed, flower seed and vegetable seed to the state,” by forbidding local government to “enact or enforce a measure, including but not limited to, an ordinance, regulation, control area or quarantine, to inhibit or prevent the production or use of agricultural seed, flower seed or vegetable seed or products.”
This section includes such specifics as “regulating the display, distribution, growing, harvesting, registration, storage, transportation or use agricultural seed, flower seed or vegetable seed” and so on [emphasis added]. This model legislation is called “Pre-Emption of Local Agricultural Laws Act.” Has it made its way to your state yet?
While ALEC supports stronger state control by weakening federal control (see here, here and, especially, here), it also supports state control by undermining local authority as well. And it’s here that we run into what seems a major contradiction.
ALEC is all up in arms about “overcriminalization” which “threatens every American.”
Collecting rainwater in Oregon, for example, resulted in one man staying 30 days in jail and paying a $1500 fine; in Maryland, two 10-year-olds were fined $500 for their non-permitted lemonade stand; and so forth. Those things happened due to overweening local control. And yet, ALEC’s draft “Pre-Emption of Local Agricultural Laws Act” fits hand-in-glove with laws already operational in some states with large agricultural interests, including those that criminalize simple, organized exchange of garden seeds within the walls of local libraries.
Dr. Vandana Shiva on the International Year of the Soil.
Gardens of hope
While we wrangle at the political level over criminalization/decriminalization of seed lending libraries, there are bright signs of a shift occurring in regards to agriculture in general, both globally and in communities around the US.
Small farms are on the upswing in the US. Defined as having less than 50 acres in cropland, the number of small farms shrank 70 percent between 1950 and 1974. Had that trend continued, we’d have fewer than 150,000 such small farms today. But a surprising thing occurred between 2001-2011: the number of small farms surged, increasing by 100,000.
BigAg continues to amass more and more cropland, but the “pace of cropland consolidation … appears to have slowed.”
Could it be that consumer demand is beginning to make an impact as people search for local foods, “organic” foods, non-GMO/GE foods?
According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, 2015 is the International Year of the Soil.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, who founded the seed-saving organization Navdanya, is a strong advocate for “those battling on behalf of food sovereignty, economic egalitarianism, agroeocology, climate action, and social justice.”
Dr. Shiva cites the successful struggles in Europe and Colombia for access to plain old garden variety seed, and the halt in arrests of Indonesian farmers for saving seeds, as examples of the gathering momentum.
In her book, “Soil Not Oil,” Dr. Shiva argues that some of our major contemporary challenges, including “climate change and biodiversity erosion,” can be met by people planting “gardens of hope everywhere.”
Meanwhile, back at the local level, enthusiasm for and participation in community seed-lending libraries is growing. Seed exchanges, and garden programs abound. Somewhere around 400 seed lending libraries are in operation, reportedly in almost all states. They reflect the diversity of our communities, exist because of dedicated grass-roots initiative and effort, underscore the joy of growing and eating healthful fruits and vegetables using age-old techniques, and help guarantee the survival of many thousands of heirloom varieties that have been passed down to us.
Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.