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Government Crackdown on Innovative Seed Library


Small town library's plans to loan seeds raises concerns about "agri-terrorism"

It was an inspiring, All-American example of a community project enriching the life of a small town—until the Agriculture Department swooped in to try and shut it down. 

This shocking story from Mechanicsburg in rural central Pennsylvania leaves people wondering if the all-for-the-market ethic that increasingly dominates business and government policy will stamp out the cooperative collaborative spirit that has guided American life for centuries and human progress for eons.

Here’s the story: During Earth Week last spring the Joseph T. Simpson Library in Mechanicsburg offered library patrons an opportunity to “check out” seeds, which they could plant in their gardens and then “return” at harvest time by collecting seeds from mature vegetables. 

How could anyone object to such an uplifting project, which encourages people’s self-reliance, healthy food and the continuation of traditional heirloom species? The idea for the seed library had come from the Cumberland County Commission for Women based upon successful seed libraries and banks around the world. The initial supply came from Seed Savers Exchange, a respected non-profit based in Decorah, Iowa that has been helping gardeners share seeds since 1975.

Library officials had studied similar projects around the country and consulted with the county office of Pennsylvania State University Agricultural Extension about the project. Sixty people had signed up for the program, which was conceived as a pilot project that could bloom across the state.

So imagine librarians’ and patrons’ reaction when lawyers and a high-ranking official of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture arrived in late July to investigate the Simpson Library’s violation of the Pennsylvania Seed Act of 2004, which protects corporations’ interests regarding patents on genetically modified (GMO) crops; this in spite of the fact that the seeds available at the Mechanicsburg Library were heirloom vegetable varieties, most of them organic. Not commercial GMO products.

But Pennsylvania Agricultural Commissioner Barbara Cross defended the costly investigation. “Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario. Protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge,” she declared, adding it makes sense to address the issue now while it was still small.

The county library executive director Jonelle Darr explained that the Seed Act focuses on the selling of seeds, which the library was not doing, reported the local Sentinel newspaper.  

But the library is complying with Agriculture Department’s restrictions, which follow policies drafted by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. They are still able to circulate seeds, but will not accept a library patron’s seeds at the end of the growing season unless they have been tested by a laboratory following protocols of the Association of Official Seed Analysts Inc or are painstakingly labeled with precise scientific information. Informal seed swaps, not sponsored by an organization like a library, are not covered by the policies.

Jay Walljasper was an editor at Utne Reader from 1984 to 2004, serving as executive editor, editor and editorial director. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and editor of Commons magazine. He writes, speaks and consults for a variety of organizations about creating strong, vital communities. Read more on his website.

Photo courtesy Roger Ward, licensed under Creative Commons