SELC partnered with a variety of groups throughout California—including local seed libraries, nonprofit organizations, and a class of fourth graders in Marin County—to advocate for AB 1810, the legislation co-sponsored by Assemblymembers Marc Levine and Devon Mathis.
While none of the seed libraries and seed exchanges in California had reported being targeted by the government, Thapar said, advocates nationwide became concerned when state officials shut down a Pennsylvania seed sharing library in 2014, citing the violation of a law mirroring the Federal Seed Act. The next year, Nebraska and Minnesota libraries faced similar crackdowns (seed control law is mostly uniform across all 50 states).
But in the last two years, Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota have all passed laws protecting non-commercial seed activity from regulatory requirements. And the effort appears to be spreading. Thapar says he has been contacted by residents in Florida, Ohio, and New York.
SELC is taking action to get laws changed in all 50 states. Almost all state seed control officials use “model legislation” (officially dubbed the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law or RUSSL) developed by the Association of American Seed Control Officialsas the template for their own laws. SELC has been working with the Association to add a section to RUSSL specifying that noncommercial seed sharing activities be exempt from industrial labeling, permitting, and testing requirements.
“If we can get the RUSSL to change that, then it would facilitate more states to incorporate that language over time,” Thapar said.
Sara McCamant, the co-founder of Community Seed Exchange, a volunteer-run seed library and garden in Sonoma County, California, said she was never too concerned that state officials would attempt a crackdown.
“There are so many libraries here,” she said. “But there was concern that it could be a problem in the future. This legislation was a preventive action, as it’s becoming an issue with the seed controllers in every state.”
But McCamant emphasizes that the new protections for local seed sharing, saving, and swapping do have immediate significance for biodiversity in California
“Just one seed library can take [plant] varieties that have almost disappeared and are impossible to find and all of a sudden you can find it everywhere,” she says. By saving the seeds of the plants that appear to be the healthiest, gardeners can breed for strength of future seed generations.
Community Seed Exchange’s library includes 180 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains such as quinoa and amaranth. The group also maintains a garden and teaches classes on how to save seed.
But the most important impact of these programs, McCamant says, is that they build resilience in the local food system by taking power away from the handful of corporations that control the majority of the global seed industry.
“If we don’t have access to the first link of a food chain, we have no control over what to grow and what food is available to us,” she said. “The scale can be small, but the impacts can be so large.”
Kristine Wong is a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, green tech, sustainable business, and food. Her work has been featured in a number of publications, includingThe Guardian US/UK, The Huffington Post, Modern Farmer, TakePart and Sierra Magazine. Before becoming a journalist, she worked in community-based environmental and public health organizations for more than 10 years.