Break open a seed and you unravel a genetic story.
Inside every seed is a narrative told by chromosomes, a tale that reveals how the plant absorbs nutrients and responds to threats from pests and weeds and to changes in climate and weather.
Inside every seed library — and there are more than 400 of them now — is another tale. Here are seeds that have been locally cultivated, saved, and passed along from farmer to farmer. They are repositories of genetic information that have been quietly spreading across America during the last decade. They tell the story of how, at a time of unprecedented climatic stress on our food supply, people are fighting to expand their range of crop choices to respond to changing climate conditions.
As one company after another is purchased by the giants that now dominate the seed trade — most notably Bayer-Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont-Pioneer, which together have purchased hundreds of locally based seed companies over the past 20 years — the libraries are defying efforts to homogenize the seeds.
The United States Department of Agriculture points to climate change as a significantly disruptive force on America’s capacity to grow food, and recommends a more diverse array of crops as a major step toward developing greater resilience. At the same time, numerous studies (including a major 30-year side-by-side comparison of the yields from organic versus conventional agriculture) suggest that farm fields with greater diversity are just as productive as the mono-cropped farms that rely on heavy applications of agricultural chemicals, and they come with far less collateral damage to the environment and public health.
Today, most of America’s seed is produced by multinational chemical companies with a seed division. The companies have been steadily eliminating local varieties that are genetically adapted to the specific ecosystems of American farm country — differences that are reflected in their performance in environments ranging from mountain valleys to the flat plains, wetlands to low desert. Instead, they mass-produce seeds bred to be planted over vast swaths of farmland, augmented with chemical boosters to compensate for what’s lacking from generations of local adaptation.
The variety of seed available to farmers is dwindling: 80 percent of the corn and 70 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S., for example, come from just four companies. In 2015, a team of USDA-funded researchers from Kansas State University and North Dakota State University reported the first county-by-county assessment of crop diversity. They reviewed 34 years of USDA census data on every recorded crop species grown in every contiguous U.S. county and found that, from 1978 to 2012, there’s been a steady decline in diversity in almost every food-growing part of the country. They expressed concern that the narrower genetic base has increased vulnerability to “the highly variable weather resulting from climate change,” as well as to pests or diseases that can spread rapidly through fields of identical plants.
As the industry consolidates, seed libraries are emerging like a parallel universe, offering local varieties for farmers and gardeners to test out, replant, and evaluate for other local users. Many are hosted by public lending libraries — adding a new sort of story to the many already on the shelves. The seeds are often housed in small packets inside old-fashioned card catalogs rescued from storage bins when libraries went digital. These small-scale seed sanctuaries are at the forefront of efforts to sustain and nourish a diverse seed supply. The libraries operate according to basic farmer principles, almost nostalgic by now: Those who test the seeds out in their fields are expected to return the following season with a sampling of the results and notes on their performance that might be helpful to the next user.
While there are abundant studies about the importance of diversity to a thriving agriculture, there are few about the relatively recent role of seed libraries. One of those, in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences by Nurcan Helicke, an assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences at Skidmore College, suggests that the libraries and other forms of open seed-sharing enhance farmers’ knowledge of seeds’ performance in local conditions and provide a hedge against the loss of precious genetic information to a homogenizing industry.
This double-pronged approach comes at a time when the pool of experienced farmers in the U.S. is contracting: The average age of American farmers is rising, and now stands at 58 years, while the number of farms is falling — from 2.2 million in 2007, according to the USDA, to 2.07 million in 2015.
The seed libraries provide an important store of knowledge that might otherwise be lost, Helicke writes, documenting and protecting such information from disappearing. Farmers’ ability to exchange and distribute saved seeds, she concludes, helps to minimize their dependence on commercial suppliers. Seed libraries are becoming repositories for our increasingly endangered genetic resources — publicly accessible and independent from the agriculture conglomerates that are becoming ever more detached from the fields where farmers plant their crops.
Open a drawer, as I did last spring at the seed library in Richmond, California, and instead of an indexed listing of books, you may find seeds for chili peppers, chard, bok choy, kale, fava beans, and locally bred peas, each accompanied by scrawled notationsof their performance in the local conditions (for example: morning fog; often indirect sun; limited water over the last three years). “We see this as a positive response to our growing knowledge of what we need to hold onto for climate resilience,” says Rebecca Newburn, an ardent gardener, middle-school science teacher, and co-founder of the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, housed in a corner near the magazine racks in the Richmond Public Library. “In a world in which more than half of the seeds for major crops are controlled by three companies, we’re trying to relocalize our resources.”
Even at this small scale, asserting independence from the commercial industry has put the libraries on a collision course with the powerful regimes that govern the seed trade: On June 12th, 2014, the two clashed when the Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, received a notice from the Bureau of Plant Industry in the state Department of Agriculture. “It has come to my attention … that you plan to offer your patrons the option to participate in a Seed Library,” wrote the state’s seed control official. “My understanding is that patrons will be able to ‘check out’ seeds, take them home and plant them, harvest any resulting fruits, collect seeds, and return the collected seed to the ‘Seed Library’ for planting in the following season…. I believe there are some issues of seed distribution that you may not be aware of….” The letter then went on to list several statutes that the library could be violating, including the dissemination of unregistered and untested seeds and seeds that had not been officially assessed for their germination capacities.
Putting a library on notice that it could be violating state law just about stopped the budding movement in its tracks. But, to the librarians’ surprise, the story went viral, or, as Newburn puts it, “it went fungal.” She recalls, “The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture had no idea what they were stepping into.”Soon, stories were emerging in the regional media about the state’s effort to close a library disseminating seeds. Libraries in Minnesota and Nebraska had been similarly threatened by their agriculture authorities. In 2014, a small non-governmental organization in Oakland, the Sustainable Economies Law Center, which promotes legal reforms to encourage locally based economic initiatives, got involved.
Neil Thapar, a staff attorney at the center, said that the Pennsylvania threat was a wake-up call for them too. The seed libraries were indeed in a legal gray zone: They were disseminating seeds not authorized or tested by the states, which do so to protect consumers from seeds that might deliver a different plant than promised. But they were also not quite illegal, since they were not distributing patented seed varieties, which had gotten farmers in trouble in the past. A public pressure campaign convinced the newly elected Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, to change course in Mechanicsburg. Thapar and his colleagues went on to work with local groups to get laws passed in the Minnesota and Nebraska legislatures exempting the libraries from seed-registration laws, essentially affirming their legal status.
In February of 2016, the action came to a head when the Seed Exchange Democracy Act was introduced into the state legislature in California, which is home to roughly 60 seed libraries of varying size. This was the big battle, with national implications. It drew in the California Seed Association, the industry trade group, which made a vigorous effort to cripple the legislation and limit its power. But the association met resistance from a coalition of sustainable-farming advocates and farmers, including the California Climate and Agriculture Network and the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, a hub of organic-farming experimentation.
After multiple hearings, and a last-minute standoff when the seed industry tried to narrow the bill’s scope by requiring that libraries state publicly that they would not share patented seeds — which librarians feared could scare off users, without protecting the libraries from legal liability — the bill was signed by Governor Jerry Brown last September. It took effect in January of 2017, and promises to provide a model for similar initiatives in other states. The act affirms the legal status of seed libraries and exchanges, and exempts them from registration and labeling rules governing the commercial seed trade.
According to Thapar, the bill not only gets farmers and gardeners off the hook for exchanging seeds, but, at its core, affirms an expanded definition of farmers’ relationship with their seeds. “We’re trying to redefine farmers using seed libraries. They’re not ‘consumers’ requiring consumer protection. They’re active and engaged participants in giving and using and testing the seeds.” In other words, they’re not just passive recipients of seeds from the seed companies, but are intertwined with the very process of nurturance and evolution that has been at the core of seed breeding since humans invented agriculture.
This shift in sensibility has become especially important in the face of disruptions in farm country caused by climate change — increasing temperatures; rain coming at unusual times, or not at all; diminishing fog; earlier springs; later winters. “The hottest topic among farmers now is how to position yourself knowing that you could have any kind of thing happening in any season — too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold, all in one season,” says Michael Sligh, a program director at the Rural Advancement Foundation International, which has been promoting seed diversity as a way to strengthen local farm economies.
There’s also been a rise in the number of seed exchanges over the past decade, in which farmers exchange and sell seeds through breeding and collection enterprises in regional hubs across the country. These are centers for testing and distributing seeds adapted to their native ecological niches.
“Seed libraries and seed exchanges may be the most important thing we’re doing for agriculture in the 21st century,” says Bill McDorman, director of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, which has been working with farmers and gardeners in the mountain states to find and breed the grains and vegetables that have practically disappeared under the pressure of large-scale commodity farms.
In Tucson, I got a glimpse into the role that the libraries can play as conditions shift for growing food. The seeds are nestled in a corner within sight of the checkout desk in the city’s modern, glass-enclosed Pima County Public Library. Inside weathered wooden card catalogs, in tiny satchels and envelopes, are hundreds of seeds, including several dozen desert-food seeds — numerous varieties of squash, corn, beans, chilies, cucumbers, and more. They’re all adapted to the hot and dry conditions of the Southwest — which happen to mirror the conditions coming to many of Earth’s food-growing lands in the future, if they’re not already there.
“People who grow successfully here are using seeds that are much more resilient — they’re able to survive in these changing conditions,” says Justine Hernandez, founder and co-director of the seed library. She reminded me that, the week before I arrived, last July, the temperature was a sizzling 117 degrees Fahrenheit. “Each season, we’re seeing less and less rain falling — and building up a repository of seeds that survive. As the temperature goes up, we’re building adaptability.”
In the enormous picture of U.S. agriculture, these are all relatively small initiatives. But they are the kernel of an effort to stimulate and sustain the wide genetic spectrum that is critical to a resilient food system. “Hopefully we’ll have preserved enough diversity,” says Rebecca Newburn, in Richmond, California, “to save us when the [current] system no longer works.”