State Responds to Seed Library Controversy

  • A public library in Cumberland County, Pa. found itself in the midst of a controversy when its seed library program caught the attention of the state's Department of Agriculture. Photo: David Silver via Flickr

August 15, 2014

Gardeners have long traded seeds, and it might seem like a fun, wholesome endeavor. But recent headlines on the internet might make you think twice about sharing those basil or tomato seeds. "Seed Libraries Outlawed in Pennsylvania," some have warned. News articles are calling the state agriculture department zealous regulators, and there are comments about stomping out local food diversity. But the state says these stories are just plain wrong.

The story started with seed exchange program at the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, in Cumberland County. Jay Howes is Deputy Secretary for Consumer Protection and Regulatory Affairs with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. He says his department did write to the library with concerns about its seed program, because the way it was organized violated the state's Seed Act. But Howes says the department was helping the library re-tool its program to comply with the law, and wasn't shutting it down. Below Howes addresses some of the questions surrounding the highly publicized situation.

What was the library program trying to do?

Their idea was to have an initial supply of seeds which members of the library would be able to take home, plant, harvest the seeds, then return seeds to the library. The library would then sort the seeds by variety or whatever, nd in the subsequent growing season redistribute them. That’s what got them under the definition of distributor. Even though it wasn’t a commercial transaction.

Why is the Seed Act focused on distribution of seeds?

The concern across the whole seed industry, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a home gardener, a hobbyist, or the commercial growers, you, a.) get the seed that you think you’re getting, b.) that it has a germination rate that it will actually grow, and c.) that there’s a certain degree of purity. You don’t want to mix in noxious weeds, invasives species. I guess maybe in a very general sense it’s a quality control program.

This is a seed exchange program where people are not buying from a seed company. With neighbors trading seeds, the expectation of quality may be lower. Is the purity of the seeds such a big issue?

That was part of the reason after we had a discussion with them where both parties got an understanding of things, we left that meeting with the understanding that we would recommend a protocol whereby they could achieve their goals, we would have our concerns about the Seed Act addressed, and thirdly, protect them from any potential liability, as a library system. We actually thought we had made progress and were doing a good thing.  Then there was the first press article, the misleading article in the Carlisle Sentinel, then it sort of exploded on the internet, and we got into all thing agri-terrorism stuff and everything.

In this case was agri-terrorism ever a concern of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture?

In that initial meeting with them (the library), it might have been mentioned in passing. There are seeds that are highly poisonous plants compared with a very common vegetable. Probably an untrained eye without a microscope could not tell the difference. So probably in that meeting it was mentioned as a possibility, but it wasn’t a major part of our conversation. Like I say, it might have been mentioned in passing. What happened was, when the county library coordinator gave her routine report to the county commissioners, one of the commissioners picked up on this agri-terrorism, and went off on quite a monologue on it, and then that became the focus of the story. And it took off from there.

Some people look at laws like the Seed Act, and say this is a way to protect big agriculture, things like patented GMO seeds, and it's not necessarily about consumer protection. Is that accurate?

No. The big agribusinesses are always the target of activist groups. The leap to Monsanto from this conversation we had at the library, there’s just no logic to that whatsoever. But they’re very active, they’re very vocal on the web. It’s a case where internet truth doesn’t relate very much to the reality of the situation at hand.

What did the Department of Agriculture suggest to the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library as a solution?

Rather than them taking physical possession of the seeds, they create under their auspices essentially a seed exchange, whereby they might supply the initial group of seeds and then more just on a member to member level of seed exchange, seed swap type of thing, facilitated by the library, without them being brought into one central location, comingled, sorted, redistributed, which woudl have gotten into the whole Act, legal requirements.

They can go as far as they want with the structure, whether they have a membership list, or rules, or just facilitate the exchange. We aren’t going to get into dictating that to them. We never shut down a seed library, and we never anticipated a crackdown statewide as some of the headlines said.

What's your reaction to the Department of Agriculture being portrayed in the media as aggressive in this situation?

We thought we were taking a very positive approach, positive and cooperative. Our first goal was compliance, not enforcement. We were very happy they were able to work out a process where they were able to achieve their goals, and we were able to fulfill our obligations under the law.