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California Amends Law to Allow Seed Libraries to Freely Share Noncommercial Seeds

September 20, 2016 |

Marking the most recent victory in a growing nationwide movement to promote the legality of seed libraries, The Seed Exchange Democracy Act (Assembly Bill 1810) was signed into law in California on September 9, 2016. The bill amends the “seed law” chapter of the state’s Food and Agricultural Code to expressly exempt seed libraries from onerous seed testing and labeling requirements. While necessary to protect buyers and consumers of commercial seeds, the impracticality of these requirements for community seed libraries would effectively cause them to shutter. California follows Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois as the fourth state in the last 18 months to adopt laws favorable to seed sharing libraries.

Neil Thapar, a food and farm attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland, California who helped launch and draft the bill, explained how seed libraries work. “Seed libraries are essentially community-based initiatives where people can borrow seeds, plant them, and at the end of the season take back some seeds to replenish the seed stock at the library for other people to borrow.” He continues, “There really isn’t any ownership over those seeds. They’re held and stewarded by the library, but they’re shared freely throughout the community.”

According to David King, Chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles (SLOLA), who advocated for AB 1810 alongside Thapar, the two key aims of all seeds libraries are to increase biodiversity through local seed saving and sharing, and to alleviate food insecurity. “I recall my grandfather saving his own seeds, and I recall those seeds were passed on to other people, to other generations,” says King. “And we’ve lost that. My generation didn’t hand down seeds to their children—we got off the farm, we quit gardening. But now as an older person I see the loss of diversity and I know the only way we can get it back is to grow these seeds, and care for these seeds as much as we would care for our dogs or cats, or even our children. It’s a sacred duty, it’s a sacred trust.”

Thapar and King cite the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s notice to the Simpson Seed Library in Mechanicsburg, PA in 2014 as inspiring their efforts to become involved in the campaign to amend California seed law. The notice informed the library that it was in violation of the state’s Seed Act of 2004, which required routine testing of large quantities of seeds according to commercial testing guidelines. As the library lacked the resources to comply, it was reduced to distributing only seeds that were commercially packaged, or hosting swap days where individuals could exchange seeds with each other without donating them to the library.

The incident in Pennsylvania sent shockwaves across seed libraries nationwide, and prompted King and SELC to delve into existing seed laws in states across the country, including California.

“Most of those laws that govern seeds were considered between the 1930s and 1950s,” explains King. “Nobody at that time envisioned the idea of a seed library. They were written in answer to the fact that you had hucksters giving farmers bad seeds, or old seed, just trying to make a quick buck. So the seed salesman makes his money, but the farmer is left with a crop that’s not saleable and so he’s ruined. That was part of why the law was written to exclude almost any transfer of seed from person to person. So the laws just don’t fit the current situation.”

King adds that particularly problematic for seed libraries in California was AB 2470, adopted into law in 2014, which forbade sharing of seeds from farther away than three miles unless they were tested and labeled under commercial standards. AB 1810’s passage allows for noncommercial seed sharing to occur anywhere in the state without the need to comply with commercial testing and labeling regulations.

The bill encountered some speedbumps along the way. “It ended up being more controversial than we expected,” says Thapar. Potential threats posed by seed sharing were raised, including the introduction and proliferation of weed seeds or invasive plant species, illegal sharing of patented seeds, low seed viability or germination percentages, and contamination or cross-pollination of seeds.

King and Thapar contend that cross-pollination is the only realistic concern for seed libraries, since many libraries have open membership and participants come with varying levels of experience. But both explain that most seed libraries aspire to educate people as to how to properly plant and save seeds. “That’s the promise and the opportunity of seed libraries,” says Thapar. “Master gardeners oftentimes work with or offer advice to seed libraries, and the libraries offer people, mostly who aren’t farmers, which is most of the people in our country, the opportunity to reconnect with that skill and that familiarity with how plants grow. And the idea is that people are going to make mistakes; it’s not that there will not be some cross-pollination that will happen in the garden of someone who then takes that seed to a seed library. It’s that the effect of that cross-pollination is not going to be a threat to agriculture, and is going to at the same time be a great learning experience for that person about how to hand-pollinate better the next year.”

With over 500 seed lending libraries now open worldwide, and many of those in the U.S., SELC encourages individuals in other states to become actively involved in researching and, if needed, amending laws to support unencumbered seed sharing. As for state laws already favorable to seed sharing, Thapar notes, “The only ones I know of that I would say are ‘good’ as-is are in North Carolina and Alabama. North Carolina has an existing exemption for nonprofits, so that would support most seed sharing, because most seed sharing that happens in an organized fashion is usually hosted by some sort of nonprofit. And in Alabama, they have a really great exemption for anybody who sells up to $3,000 worth of seeds that they grew themselves, annually. So they exempt not just seed sharing, but if you sell a small quantity or small dollar value of seeds, you are also exempt from some of the provisions of the law.”

SELC moderates a Seed Law Toolshed, an open-source, crowdsourced database with links to state seed laws. Thapar encourages everyone to check out and contribute to the database.

Those interested in tracking seed sharing advocacy efforts nationwide can follow the development of law and policy on SELC’s “Save Seed Sharing Campaign” website.

Finally, Thapar underscores the vital role of community organizations and individuals in shaping law and policy on seed sharing. “The value that lawyers add [in grassroots efforts] are as technical advisers or advocates that can read legislative language or have experience doing policy and can offer some kind of strategy for setting up a legislative campaign,” Thapar says. “Generally, my take on policies based on the experience I’ve had in the last few years is that it’s more effective when people who are actually going to be harmed by or benefit from the policy advocate for it.”

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