Are seed libraries legal in your state?

Seed libraries have become a popular way for gardeners to share seeds with others in their community. But a recent USDA investigation has thrown the legal status of seed libraries across the country into question. 

Jason Plotkin/AP/File
Donna Maciejewski , an employee with Miller Plant Farm in York Township, Pa., gathers transplanted seeds together. Some federal agencies view the informal and unregulated nature of community seed libraries as a potential threat to the security of the food systemAP Photo/York Daily Record, Jason Plotkin) GARDEN

Seed libraries, initiatives that allow gardeners to share seeds with others in their community, have steadily gained popularity in the United States, with more than 400 seed libraries currently documented. However, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) controversial investigation of the Simpson Seed Library in Mechanicsburg, PA, in June 2014, the legal status of community seed libraries is in question across the country. 

A seed library houses a community’s collection of seeds in a public place—often at an actual library. Anyone can take seeds from the library at no cost; however, organizers encourage participants to replace seeds at the end of the season to maintain the collection. Seed libraries are often part of initiatives to promote community gardening and local food systems. Proponents argue seed libraries are civic assets that connect community members; provide free seeds to those in need; contribute to community self-sufficiency and resilience; conserve disappearing varieties of crops; and recapture control of seeds from corporations. Accordingly, for communities developing local, diverse, and sustainable food systems, seed libraries are a central resource.

However, supervisory agencies view the informal and unregulated nature of community seed libraries as a potential threat to the security of the food system. According to Barbara Cross, the county commissioner serving Mechanicsburg, “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario.” Objections to seed libraries center on concerns that, due to a lack of regulation, seed libraries could be targeted by agents seeking to introduce contaminated or invasive seeds into the food supply.

Accordingly, the USDA and state Departments of Agriculture are calling for the regulation of seed libraries. In many cases, these agencies consider seed libraries legally analogous to seed companies, which must comply with regulations ensuring against mislabeled, contaminated, or compromised products. One of these rules, seed testing, may prove a serious obstacle for seed libraries: organizations simply may not have enough seeds of a given variety to satisfy the sample size required for testing. The enforcement of such regulations would, at the very least, undermine the purpose of community seed libraries—and at the worst, make the operation of a community seed library virtually impossible.

Due to the potentially crippling effects of state regulation, advocates of seed libraries are protesting state seed laws. Some supporters contend that policymakers did not intend state seed laws to govern informal, non-commercial exchanges of seeds between members of a community. Advocates of seed libraries are also closely examining existing seed laws to determine if current policies apply to seed libraries at all. For instance, the Pennsylvania Seed Law Act of 2004—which the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture used to disable the Simpson Seed Library—contains language that, arguably, does not to apply to seed libraries. While the law requires licensure of any agent supplying seeds, it only requires those selling seed to submit samples for testing. 

State governments regulate seeds, so laws vary across the U.S. While many contain certain requirements for regulation of seeds, the language (and applicability) of these requirements varies. In some cases, like Pennsylvania Seed Act, this language does not address non-commercial distribution of seeds. However, in other cases, policies such as the California Seed Law of 2011 and Article 2 of the Arizona Revised Statues determine the “selling” of seed refers to any vending, bartering, and exchanging of seed. 

Seed library defenders are reviewing the legal language to find loopholes that would permit seed libraries to function. With more restrictive laws, advocates are working on revisions that would exempt seed libraries and other non-commercial endeavors.

To learn about your state’s seed laws, visit the American Seed Trade Association website. To learn more about the protection of seed libraries, visit the Save Seed Sharing website and read the petition to the Departments of Agriculture in all 50 states.

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