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Big Government Goes After Heirloom Seeds

Image source: MPR

Image source: MPR

Trading heirloom or open-pollinated seeds with your friends and neighbors could be in violation of state law.

That’s because from coast to coast, states are targeting “seed libraries.”

Librarians in Duluth, Minnesota, learned the hard way about the law when an inspector from the state Department of Agriculture shut down their seed library because, he said, they were in violation of a law that regulates the selling of seeds without a license, Minnesota Public Radio reported. The seed library, which operated out of a closet at the public library, gave gardeners a place they could exchange vegetable seeds. The seeds were not sold.

“We didn’t consider ourselves to be selling seeds,” Duluth Library Manager Carla Powers told MPR. The library didn’t charge the 200 members of the seed library for the 800 packets of seeds they borrowed. “However, selling, in [the] Minnesota seed law, also includes free distribution or even exchange.”

The seed library would need to get a $50 permit, properly label the seeds and then test the seeds to see if they germinate properly, the inspector reportedly told Powers. Those requirements are likely beyond the scope of the small seed library, so it probably will shut down.

Officials Defend Actions

“Everybody thinks we’re the big, evil, bad government, but it’s much more complicated than people are aware,” Geir Friisoe, the director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Plant Protection Division, told The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Part of Friisoe’s job is to enforce state seed laws designed to keep unscrupulous seed merchants from selling seeds mixed with weeds.

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Supporters of the library say it is no threat.

“There’s almost no danger,” John Torgrimson, the executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, said of seed libraries. “This is not a risk to agriculture in any state. This is not a risk to our food supply.”

The Plant Protection Division is simply trying to create a level playing field for all seed providers, Steve Malone, a supervisor at the agency, told MPR. He thinks the library and seed companies should play by the same rules.

“The last thing you’d want to have is somebody goes in the library, picks up seed, and it doesn’t come up,” Malone said.

Seed Libraries Are Illegal In Other States, Too

This is not the first time a seed library has attracted the scrutiny of a state department of agriculture. The Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, was ordered to shut down its seed library over the summer, as Off The Grid News reported. Similar to what happened in Minnesota, state officials claimed they were trying to protect agriculture.

“When state law was written, probably 10 years ago, there was no such thing as a seed library, so the law didn’t anticipate this,” Jay Howes, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of agriculture, told the Associated Press. Howes believes that outdated laws written before seed libraries were created are at the root of the problem.

Similar laws could be on the books in other states. AP reported that several seed libraries in Nebraska are illegal under the current law. Betsy Goodman, who established a seed library at in Omaha, Nebraska, told the news service, “Regenerating your own seed is a human right.”

David Svik of Nebraska’s state control office said he would consult the state attorney before taking action against the libraries. Svik believes the issue will eventually surface in the state legislature.

Battle For Seed Sharing Begins

An Oakland, California-based organization, the Sustainable Economies Law Center, is organizing an effort to protect seed libraries from state regulators. The Center wants to help state legislators change the law to protect seed-sharing rights.

It has created a blog and posted the “Seed Law Tool Shed,” to collect and share information on state seed laws.

“We think it’s a right people have,” Neil Thapar, an attorney for the center, said. “It’s part of our culture.”

Do you believe heirloom seeds should be regulated? Share your thoughts in the section below:

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