Dear Seed Librarians,

I wanted to update you on the an article that recently came out about the Simpson Seed Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s requested them to comply with a Pennsylvania statute regulating seed distributors. Here is an article, Department of Agriculture cracks down on seed libraries (July 31, 2014). The following is a summary of what has occurred.

The Simpson Seed Library received a letter from the Seed Controllers Office (June 12, 2014) about their need to comply with Pennsylvania Seed Act and Regulations and requesting them to purchase a seed license as a seed distributor. They would need to be in compliance with the rules that govern a seed company “including, but not limited to, such things as Germination test date, Sell by date, lot #, Seed Kind, distributor’s name and address.” Furthermore the “returned” seed would have to be tested using the “Association of Official Seed Analysts (AOSA) Rules for Testing Seed” and labeled according to that standard. Additionally records of each seed lot would need to be maintained for 2 years and a file sample of each lot would need to be kept for one year.  

Shortly after they received the letter from the PA DOA, Rebecca Swanger, a librarian at Joseph T. Simpson Library contacted me requesting help. I sent out the letter from the PA DOA to the other Pennsylvania seed libraries. No one else had or has received a similar letter. The information was also shared with some seed experts and organizations.  As you can read in the article above, the PA DOA was uncompromising. With all due respect, the Simpson Seed Library chose to comply with the PA DOA’s request and beyond their original appeal and not legally pursue the matter.  They will be not be closing the seed library but will only stock new commercially donated or purchased seeds and hope to host seed exchanges, which are allowed.

There are many reasons to be concerned and it is important for us to be clear in our response as sister seed libraries. Note, that this is a Pennsylvanian law and not federal. However, we do seem to be on Big Ags’ radar. Fortunately, we are also on the press’s radar with all of the great press your seed libraries have received in your communities and beyond. USA Today wants to do a piece on this particular event. It seems that though Simpson Seed Library chose not to go with big publicity and a campaign to fight the decision, that the story has been picked up and there will be a need for us to respond.   The main issue is not the law, as the law is there for a good reason to insure seed quality.  What is of concern is that they see seed libraries in the same boat as seed companies and want to enforce the same rules on us.  Interestingly, failure to comply with this Pennsylvania law is a “stop sale.” Even the languaging doesn’t apply to seed libraries. If you would like additional information, you can go to the Simspon Seed Library's website. There are a list of resources including the correspondence with the PA Department of Agriculture, PA Seed Act and a press release from the public library.

We want to be proactive in explaining what we do as seed libraries and why we provide a valuable service that needs to be preserved and encouraged. Attached are some talking points if folks ask you about what happened in Mechanicsburg, PA. If you receive a similar letter, please email me. We have a large network and there is support, including a few organizations that offered possible legal assistance. I’ve also created a Google form so if folks have other things they would like to add to the conversation they can do so and I will (try) to make the results visible to everyone so that all of the information is accessible for the benefit of all.

In seed SOILadarity,
Rebecca Newburn

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Comment by Richmond Grows on August 15, 2014 at 8:28am

The above is from an email I sent out and Devon posted it here. The talking points were an attachment in the email. They are below:

Seed Library Talking Points in Response to the closure of the Simpson Seed Library

The reasons for having regulations around seed are valid and valuable. Statutes, such as the PA Seed Act of 2004, have at their core the intention to protect consumers from unscrupulous seed companies that sell substandard seed to unsuspecting consumers. These laws also address the infringement of seed patents, the spread of invasive plants and diseases and poor seed quality due to cross pollination. However, applying these laws to seed libraries is not appropriate for numerous reasons.


Seed libraries are not seed companies.

Participating in a seed library is a voluntary public activity facilitated by the library.  Seed libraries are not “seed distributors” nor are the members of seed libraries “customers.”  There are no sales involved at any point in the process.

The seed quality may not be up to seed company standards.

Concerns about seed quality is something that seed libraries do their best to address by a number of means; however, they are not seed companies and cannot and do not guarantee the quality of the seed. Since seed is distributed freely to the community, people understand that there is occasionally lower germination or some off-types. These are some steps that seed libraries take to increase seed quality:

A.    Seed Pledges: Community members using a seed library often sign a seed pledge when they become members acknowledging that they will not willingly share GMO or hybrid seeds and will learn about saving seeds and only return seed that they know how to properly save.

B.    Collections are usually organized by seed saving levels of difficulty: Members are encouraged to learn how to save the “super easy” plants that do not readily cross-pollinate and are asked to not return seeds of the “difficult” plants until they have learned more about seed saving. In addition to libraries containing books on seed saving, many seed libraries also offer classes on seed saving often taught by Master Gardeners or other horticulturalists.

C.     Seed Protocol: Most libraries use the seed protocol, which can be displayed at their library and on their website.

D.    Acceptance of off-types: Being that all seed is free, people are more accepting of seed that may be off-type or have a lower germination rate than commercially purchased seed. Seed libraries are not in competition with seed companies since folks who want the assurance of seed purity and germination can purchase those seeds.

Protecting food supplies is a serious concern.

Most seed libraries agree that protecting our food supply is a serious concern and that seed libraries can play an important role in strengthening our communities’ access to healthy food.

Seed libraries are a repository of seed for the benefit of the public. They are a commons where free seed is distributed to provide increased food security, an opportunity to improve the health of our community members, to help preserve our compromised biodiversity, to celebrate local varieties that are important to our community’s cultural heritage and to provide seed that is locally adapted to our rapidly changing climate.

There have been no incidences of seeds borrowed from a seed library causing injury or sickness. The concern that seed libraries could be an avenue for “agri-terrorism” is unfounded as it extremely unlikely that a terrorist would put seeds in hundreds of seed libraries. Of more concern is the current model of big agricultural with its centralization of our food supply and reliance on a few select varieties. This centralization puts our system at considerable risk due to its susceptibility to disease that could wipe out significant portions of our food supply.


Comment by Pat Sobrero on August 11, 2014 at 5:03pm

Hi Rebecca,

I don't see how to access your talking points from this article.  (I see all the other links.) Where should I be looking?  Thanks for all you do.  Looking forward to seeing everyone again at the Expo.


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