Seed Lending Libraries: Empowered Communities Take Control of their Genetic Resources
By Katie Brimm
Watch out Chaucer, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Aristotle, here comes Mint, Pea, Squash, and Kale, the new members of your local library. Seed library that is. With more than 30 already underway in the US, six of which are right here in the Bay Area, these pockets of public access are making neighborhoods more resilient to environmental changes and the ever-looming corporate controlled food system.
What Are They?
Seed libraries are places where members of the community can come and literally “check out” seeds just like one checks out a book, for free. Members can take, grow, save, and at the end of season, “return” seeds back to the library. This gives the average person free access to hundreds of varieties of seed stock, many of which are specific and native to the very climate of their neighborhood. Talk about eating locally.
Why Are Seed Libraries Important?
Seed libraries carry and promote open pollinating, heirloom, and native varieties, and by participating, members are not only getting free seeds to grow their own food, but also their seed saving efforts help conserve the planet’s genetic diversity. “Seed libraries are a community response to genetic erosion, the loss of varieties, and keeping a viable seed stock through growing seeds out regularly, through in-situ biodiversity conservation,” says Patrick O’Connor from local Berkeley BASIL: “Our ability to save our own seeds is central to the task of building a democratic food system.”
This is crucial, BASIL notes, because of an increased dependency on hybrid varieties as the majority of the world’s family-owned seed companies have been bought out by multinational corporations. Often this means plant strains saved over years and years are replaced with patented hybrids. This is not a viable strategy as hybrids suffer noticeable declines in yields in subsequent generations, decreased genetic diversity and a loss of environmental resilience. And since most are now patented and cannot be legally collected and used, farmers and gardeners are forced to buy new ones from corporate sources every year. The backlash against corporate seeds coincides with the increase of libraries and a movement to return seeds to the people.
A Place For You
The nature of this movement is clear in the aesthetic environment of the libraries. Most are set up in public places, but some, like Richmond Grows, are even housed in Public Libraries. This is partly because they lend existing infrastructure and support, but more significantly because at their core, seed libraries are for the community, the public, the people.
Unlike corporate seed companies and seed banks, you can just walk into local seed libraries like BASIL or Oakland’s new Seedfolks. You’ll find no coded vault here or billion dollar climate controlled facility like the Seed Vault in Svalbard, but instead an old wood file cabinet just like the ones used for books, alphabetically arranging the tiny seeds for next season’s crop. No plated window or locked doors that only “officials” can go through, but instead a friendly, open environment meant to encourage learning, sharing, and a fascination with heirlooms, native plants, and traditional cultural knowledge. It is not only seeds you get here, but also hands on workshops that teach the average joe how to grow their own food and save their seeds in the process. O’Connor reminds us, “We should eat what we want to preserve, cherish the crops that our ancestors tended and participate in the reciprocal relationship that has sustained human civilization since time immemorial. If we wish to have a sovereign food system we need to hold our shared genetic heritage in common.”
This year will be BASIL's 13th annual Seed Swap on March 30th at the Ecology Center in Berkeley. It's a potluck for agricultural biodiversity with interesting people, good food and music.
Grand Opening Celebration for the Cesar Chavez Seed Library: January 21, 2012: @ the Cesar Chavez Public Library (3301 East 12th Street #201 in Oakland; 2-5 pm; free of charge. Join the Seedfolks and the Cesar Chavez Library staff and community as we celebrate the grand opening of Oakland's first public seed library! http://www.theseedfolks.org/events-and-classes.html