Good news for seed libraries! In July 2016 the American Association of Seed Control Officials (AASCO) added an amendment to the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law (RUSSL) to exempt seed libraries and other non-commercial seed sharing initiatives. The RUSSL is the guide that state legislatures look to when setting their own seed laws. The AASCO is made up of seed control professionals from each state department of agriculture. Making this amendment a reality is the result of work done by a committee composed of representatives from AASCO, the American Seed Trade Association, seed librarians, and others active in the seed world. Granted, this doesn’t mean it is a part of all state seed laws now; however this recommendation will influence those seed laws.
Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, and California have already passed laws exempting seed libraries from their state seed laws. Sometimes it is just a matter of interpretation when applying the existing laws. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has now decided that seed libraries and other non-commercial seed exchanges are exempt from regulation without requiring an act of congress. What it did require is action by a statewide group led by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), Grow Pittsburgh, the Public Interest Law Center and members of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. Individuals and other organizations were also involved in this effort to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to change their interpretation of their seed laws, which is all very interesting because it is their original interpretation that brought up the issue of seed libraries being in violation of state seed laws in the first place.
I am the author of Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People, published by New Society Publishers in early 2015. During the year I spent writing that book, I tracked down every seed library I could find evidence of for information. Although much of this work was done by computer, I was able to physically visit some of them. My years of experience as a seed saver contributed to the book, also. Seed libraries were popping up all over the country and changing constantly. I contacted all the seed libraries I wrote about to confirm my information. As much as I found out about seed libraries, nowhere was there any mention about their legality until just before I sent my finished manuscript to the publisher. In late June 2014 I started receiving emails about the Simpson Public Library in Pennsylvania being approached by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and told that it couldn’t distribute seeds as planned, which is the same plan that I had written about. You can find more about that in my post Seed Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities. The world of seed libraries was in an uproar. I included an afterword in the book to address the situation, being pretty sure that things would settle out, and they seem to be doing that, but not without the efforts of seed library activists. You can find more information about the Simpson Seed Library and their legal issues on their updated webpage.
What does this all mean for seed libraries in states that haven’t exempted them from the state seed laws yet? To answer that question I consulted Neil Thapar, food and farm attorney with the Sustainable Economies Law Center. I met Neil at the International Seed Library Forum in Tucson, AZ in May 2015 and he has been at the forefront of the effort to work through the legal issues of seed libraries. Neil and I both agree that you should proceed with your seed library plans, but to be 100% sure that your seed library will not be challenged by the laws in your state you would need to contact the Department of Agriculture in your state. It may be that there is no issue with seed libraries because of how the existing seed laws are worded. If it is questionable and you are told there is nothing to worry about, get that in writing. There are actions currently being taken in some states to have the AASCO amendment on seed libraries adopted.
The AASCO recommendation is a template for language that the states can use for their own laws. You can view the seed library amendment here. To receive updates about what is going on in the seed library world go to seedlibraries.net. The amendment is for “non-commercial seed sharing”, which means that no money should change hands for seeds. It also means that the seeds are freely shared and that there is no expectation of seeds being brought back. Some seed libraries may have had their patrons sign a paper pledging to bring seeds back. That should be changed. In reality, though, even if they signed the paper, that doesn’t mean that they actually brought seeds back. Lots can happen between planting seeds and having a harvest of viable seed, no matter how good your intentions are when you start. Other specifics concern label requirements, which are easy enough to comply with. In fact, having good information on the packages of seed offered has been encouraged with seed libraries early on and you will find examples of labels in my book. Since these seed sharing initiatives are non-commercial, “no distributed container shall hold more than eight (8) ounces of agricultural seed or four (4) ounces of vegetable or flower seed.”
If you use the AASCO amendment as a guideline for your seed library I would think you should have no problems. Do check with your state if you have concerns. Seed libraries should communicate with each other, particularly ones in the same region. Join The Seed Library Social Network. The seed library movement is so much more than just the sharing of seeds. It is the celebration of seeds. I see education about seed saving and sharing to be the most important aspect. No matter how many seeds you distribute, if those who receive them don’t grow them and save the seed properly, you are not moving forward. With enough education and celebration about seeds, growing and saving them will follow naturally. For more ideas on forming a seed library and keeping it going, consult Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People, which is sale-priced at Homeplace Earth through January 1, 2017. Happy seed sharing!