Representatives of seed libraries in nine different countries gathered in Tucson last week to share ideas and inspiration for improving local access to diverse seeds. Climate change, biodiversity, food justice, and culture were just some of the topics for this first-ever forum.
Last week, Tucson was the site of the first International Seed Library Forum, co-sponsored by the Pima County Public Library, the University of Arizona, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Edible Baja, and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
This four-day event brought together experts and practitioners to look at improving access to local seed resources. Attendees included seed librarians from across the country, as well as participants from nine different countries. Themes in the conference included promising practices for seed libraries, food justice, cultural seed stories, educational opportunities, seed policy, and plans. The conference also included a seed swap, a screening of the film “Seeds of Time,” a tamalada celebration of maize diversity, and a field trip to the Native Seeds/SEARCH conservation center.
An important and broad-reaching topic of discussion was climate change and the role agricultural diversity and seed saving play in a world in which the climate is changing rapidly. Cary Fowler, agricultural pioneer and former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, spoke about this, saying "My big concern is about climate change…Agricultural crops are going to exist in historically unprecedented combinations of circumstances." While in the past, we adapted the circumstances for crops we wanted to grow, through things like irrigation and pesticides, in the future, we will have to adapt the plants themselves, which can only happen through diversity. This will depend on having diverse varieties available. This diversity might come from seed banks, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway that Fowler started, as well as from small local seed libraries like those being celebrated at this event. Fowler urged us all to consider conserving heirloom varieties and work on developing tomorrow's heirlooms.
Another issue that has been on the minds of seed librarians lately is policy and regulatory challenges. Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture infamously cracked down on a small seed library there, alleging violations of the state’s Seed Act of 2004 with a county commissioner saying that “Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario.” Seed libraries in Iowa, Minnesota, and other places have faced similar challenges.
The seed library forum hosted a spirited discussion of this issue, featuring Neil Thapar, a staff lawyer with the Sustainable Economies Law Center. While the law is gray in many states, participants expressed consensus that these laws were not intended to apply to informal, noncommercial seed sharing groups. Thapar acknowledged it is important that the movement get in front of these issues and propose regulations and practices that allow for seed sharing without onerous restrictions. During the event, he took on the task of drafting a Joint Resolution in Support of Seed Libraries, which attendees then signed on the final day. This document will be shared with officials at an upcoming meeting of the Association of American Seed Control Officials. Participants were also encouraged to contact their local legislators, departments of agriculture, and seed control authorities to express their views.
The implications of seed libraries and seed saving in general for rural populations were evident throughout the conference. Overall, the decrease in small family farms, the concentration of populations in urban centers, and the rise of big corporate agriculture has led to the dramatic decrease in plant diversity. An astonishing 96% of all plant varieties are now extinct, according to Fowler.
While many seed libraries are located in large urban centers like the one in Tucson, there are also smaller rural libraries like those in the Arizona towns of Patagonia and Portal. And even the larger urban libraries are coming up with creative ways to serve rural parts of their counties. The Pima County library system, for example, allows for interlibrary loan of seeds out to their 27 branches. Other ways to spread seed libraries to more remote areas are pop-up seed libraries or little free seed libraries (like the tiny mailbox-sized book libraries).
Discussions of food justice at this forum also touched on rural issues. Michael McDonald, CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, talked about the transition of food banks from “feeding the long lines of people to shortening the lines” through innovative development strategies. He urged communities to think about “food as a tool for economic development” by encouraging community members to establish ways to grow food and form small businesses around food. This often involves asset identification and collaboration on regional food hubs. One asset rural communities have in abundance is land, and one collaboration opportunity is for rural growers to tap into urban food banks as distributors.
Another thoughtful voice on rural issues was offered by Jeanette Hart-Mann, co-founder of the SeedBroadcast project, which explores grassroots seed action through storytelling. Along with partner Chrissie Orr, Hart-Mann drives around a Mobile Seed Story Broadcasting Station collecting and sharing stories of seed.
SeedBroadcast is based in Anton Chico, New Mexico, a rural town about two hours from Albuquerque. Like many rural dwellers, Hart-Mann engages in multiple livelihoods, including not only SeedBroadcast, but a small family farm and teaching at the University of New Mexico. As an artist and a non-traditional agriculturalist, she thinks a lot about the intersection of place and creativity in rural areas.
“In rural communities, people can get stuck. Where is their value? Where do you start?” she asks. “It’s critical to revisit our core values as a community…How do we value and enable our people?” Hart-Mann emphasizes that in rural communities, we need to examine the ways we support and promote health, not just of individuals, but of the whole community, and how this connects to the economy, transportation, and yes, food. The stories she collects as a part of SeedBroadcast weave together many of these issues.
Over the four days of this event, there were many stories of culture, values, community, and sharing. A culminating discussion on the future of seed libraries focused on increasing the momentum of the movement. While the exponential effects of climate change loom on the horizon, we have the ability to mitigate it by empowering people to take action. Whether it is urban or rural, legislative or grassroots, scientific or cultural, we can all do something to promote biological diversity and conversation. It all starts with a seed.