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Has Seed Sharing Been Made Illegal in the United States?

By Kim Robson:

For thousands of years, farmers have reclaimed and cleaned seeds from the harvest, then kept them over the winter for replanting the next spring. Agri-business giant Monsanto had had enough of that. They developed genetically modified (GM) seeds that resist Monsanto’s own herbicide, Roundup™, allowing farmers to spray fields with weed killer without destroying the crop. Monsanto acquired a U.S. patent on the seeds. In all of its history, the United States Patent and Trademark Office had never granted patents on seeds, viewing them as “life-forms,” with too many variables to be patented. But in 1980, the Supreme Court ended all that. They expanded patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism.” Since then, Monsanto has won 674 biotechnology patents, becoming the world’s leader in genetic modification of seeds, according to USDA data.

seed sharing
Picture from http://www.thesleuthjournal.com

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready™ seeds are required to sign a legal agreement promising not to save the seeds produced for replanting, or to sell the seeds to other farmers. This requires farmers to buy all new seeds every year. Increased seed sales, along with sales of its Roundup™ weed killer, have been a financial boon for Monsanto.

The sharing of seeds isn’t just a time-honored practice; it encourages local biodiversity as well as food security. But now it’s not just large-scale farmers who are effected. Even informal seed sharing between backyard gardeners may be considered illegal in some of the United States. According to a recent report published in Mother Earth News, certain states now have laws requiring a permit to sell seeds, and that they be properly labelled and tested, which is appropriate for commercial endeavors.

But some states equate giving away seeds with their definition of “selling,” which is unfair for casual backyard gardeners. Seed swaps and seed libraries are a way for communities to cooperate and preserve the integrity of local plant biodiversity. To apply rules designed to regulate commercial operations to weekend gardeners is a ridiculous waste of government time and resources.

For example, Minnesota’s seed law is so all-encompassing that it actually prohibits gardeners from sharing or giving away seeds without purchasing an annual permit from the state. They also must have the germination of each seed lot tested and attach a detailed label to each seed packet. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which enforces the law, has recently warned seed libraries that they can’t distribute free seeds to gardeners unless they buy the permit and provide detailed labeling, even though the libraries aren’t selling the seeds. The penalty for violating Minnesota’s law is a fine of up to $7,500 per day.

In this video, John Kohler of the YouTube gardening channel Growing Your Greens speaks to Neil Thapar, staff attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), and Rebecca Newburn from the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library:

<iframe width=”853″ height=”480″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/txRUeuuKex4?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

Claiming they were “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America,” authorities recently told aseedling Pennsylvania seed library that it was in violation of the Seed Act. Regulators said that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario.” Actually, seed libraries are more likely to protect food resources and ensure public access to local heirloom varieties. Since the 1980 Supreme Court ruling, big seed companies have abandoned open-pollinated seeds in favor of patented, hybridized, genetically-engineered plants. On the other hand, seed libraries lend their members free seeds with the request that they reclaim harvested seed to return to the library, thereby increasing the availability of seeds for everyone.

How can we ensure the public’s right to the ancient practice of seed sharing, which is relevant today more than ever?

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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