The First International Seed Library Forum

Posted by on May 30, 2015 in News | Comments Off on The First International Seed Library Forum

On May 3rd, the first International Seed Library Forum convened in Tucson, AZ and our domestic initiative, the Cleveland Seed Bank, was fortunate enough to be in attendance. It was an inspiring conference with far-reaching implications for the future of the Seed Library Movement, culminating in the signing of the Joint Resolution in Support of Seed Libraries.


The forum was a mix of panels and presentations, field trips and film, and one very excellent literary reading. Nine countries were represented, and speakers included such seed diversity superstars as Bill McDorman of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance; Rebecca Newburn of Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library; Gary Nabhan of The University of Arizona; Scott Chaskey, the author of Seedtime; and Cary Fowler of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault/Special Advisor to the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The goal of the forum? To celebrate and advance the cause of seed diversity.

A tremendous amount of information was shared over those four days, and while the topics of specific panels varied widely, much of the discussion focused around either 1) articulating the motivations behind the movement or 2) determining how to best ensure its longevity and success – or, in other words, the “Why” and the “How” of seed libraries.


View of Tucson from Sentinel Peak


The first of those – the “Why” of seed libraries – was, it seemed at first, hardly a question that needed answering in that particular assembly; the passion of the attendees for their work was almost palpable. And yet it became increasingly clear over the course of the forum that to do the latter – to ensure the long-term security of seed libraries – the former was necessary as well.

Why? Well, if you have been following seed library news over the last year or so you will have heard about the 2014 closure of the seed library in Mechanicsburg, PA due to the misapplication of commercial seed laws by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Other seed libraries have since faced similar regulatory challenges. Forum attendees decided that, rather than taking a defensive stance, the best way for the movement to address this issue was to take a celebratory approach: an approach in which seed libraries stand up as a community and say “Here is the amazing, positive thing we do and why it makes sense for us to do it.”


The Why


While each seed library has its own focus (they are inherently community-oriented organizations, so each will reflect the needs of its specific locale) certain motivations are more or less universal. These were explored over the course of the forum and include a dedication to the following:

  • Biological Diversity
  • Food Access/Food Security
  • Culture, Community, and the Role of Story


Increasing Biological Diversity

“Diversity is the common heritage of mankind.” – Cary Fowler

“It is biologically appropriate to steward seeds at a grassroots level.” – Bill McDorman

Humans have been saving seeds for 12,000 years and created a vast array of crop varieties in the process. But the practice of seed saving has flagged in recent generations, and the result has been a massive decrease in biological diversity. Since 1900 we have lost between 75% and 96% of our crop varieties. Why is that a problem? Because genetic diversity is an insurance policy. Every single crop variety is important because any one may have the traits necessary to resist a new disease, or to tolerate adverse climatic conditions.

Seed libraries have long been aware of this issue and are, by their very nature, dedicated to helping people “rejoin the ritual” (to use Bill McDorman’s term) of seed saving. Such a “rejoining” not only conserves the biological diversity that we have left, it adds to it. “We’re not dumber than our ancestors,” Cary Fowler said, encouraging us not to abandon the field when it comes to selecting tomorrow’s varieties. Rebecca Newburn echoed this sentiment only moments later, emphasizing the need to create the heirlooms of the future in addition to saving the heirlooms of the past.


Corn at the International Seed Library Forum's community seed swap


Enhancing Food Access/Food Security

By providing free seed, seed libraries facilitate the ability of communities to grow their own food. This is particularly important in vulnerable communities, such as those located in food deserts. Food deserts are defined by the USDA as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores … [this] lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”

The ability to grow fresh produce is of critical importance in such areas, and seed libraries are uniquely positioned to help make that possible. Gary Paul Nabhan spoke to the need for the movement to continue to dream big, envisioning “15,000 seed libraries – one in every food desert.” And the forum’s keynote speaker, Michael McDonald, CEO of Community Food Banks of Southern Arizona, addressed the ability of seed libraries to partner with food banks and help them shift their focus from simply “feeding the long line of people” to “shortening that line.”


Culture, Community and the Role of Story

We speak frequently in the seed saving community of “heirloom” varieties. But what makes a variety an heirloom? And why are heirlooms important? On the very first day of the forum, Rebecca Newburn gave a speech in which she reflected on how heirlooms, by their very nature, carry with them “face, place, and story.” Seeds and their stories have the power to re-connect us to place and community. Local students from Tucson’s City High School said that the act of growing pulls kids out of their heads and connects them to place, while Virginia Nazarea from the University of Georgia highlighted the fact that populations displaced by physical or cultural shifts are able, with the passing down of seed, to achieve a reconstruction of place. These efforts, she pointed out, “span ruptures with coherence. And with coherence comes meaning and attachment.”

By stewarding local heirlooms and their stories, seed libraries help communities to connect with their pasts and to shape their futures. “Seeds are dynamic,” said Western Carolina University’s Jim Veteto. “Stories are dynamic.” When we engage with either, we “step in the river” and are moved along by that dynamism. This how we add to our “cultural topsoil.” The handoff of seed carries the stories forward, and the stories travel on, added to by each new grower, continuing the life of that variety in the community.


The How


The two initiatives to have come out of the forum with the farthest-reaching implications for the future of the movement were

  • The beginnings of a formal, international alliance of seed libraries
  • The adoption and signing of a Joint Resolution in Support of Seed Libraries


A Formal Alliance of Seed Libraries

Such a network would connect seed libraries from across the world, providing them with a central hub. It would facilitate the sharing of resources, allow us to work together on common problems, and lend increased legitimacy to the movement as a whole. A small committee was formed on the third day of the forum to explore the potential of such an alliance and to reach out to others to further its creation.


The Joint Resolution in Support of Seed Libraries

It was this aspect of the “How” of Seed Libraries that most strongly benefitted from a thorough articulation of the “Why.” Drafted with the invaluable guidance of Neil Thapar of the Sustainable Economies Law Center & Neil Hamilton of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center, the document was the final expression of the celebratory approach attendees had settled on to help the movement address regulatory challenges. The Joint Resolution lays before the world, in plain and compelling language, what it is that seed libraries are all about: how we view ourselves, what we stand for, and what it is that we are doing. Taking this affirmative stance allows the movement to get in front of regulatory challenges and highlights why it is that seed libraries naturally stand outside the scope and intent of current seed legislation. The full text can be read and signed here.


Bill McDorman presenting for approval the Joint Resolution in Support of Seed Libraries


The What Next


We gardeners, farmers, cooks and eaters / wish to affirm our sacred vows / to steward, love and serve / the astonishing diversity of food crops … so that we may all eat what we have truly sown.” – Brother Coyote (aka Gary Paul Nabhan)

Seeds are an embodiment of hope, and contain within them an exponential power. Seed libraries steward and distribute that power to their communities, increasing food security and enhancing biodiversity in the process. Consider supporting their work by signing the petition to Save Seed Sharing and by adding your name to the Joint Resolution in Support of Seed Libraries. Want to do more? Identify your local AASCO representative and write to them expressing your support for seed libraries, or take any of the additional 15 Actions for Seed Freedom listed on our website.


The beautiful setup at Pima County Library's amazing Seed Library





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