Is Seed Swapping Illegal?

Reader Contribution by Anna Hess And Mark Hamilton
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I attended a fascinating, all-day seed-saving workshop last month, but I have to admit the talk that raised my eyebrows the most was the one on legalities. Did you know that seed swapping is illegal in many states?

The most obvious illegality comes not from sharing seeds but from splitting certain types of perennials. For example, the Prelude red raspberry is patented, with a small royalty from each sale going back to the originators at the NY State Experiment Station. You can usually tell if a variety you’re buying is patented because it’ll cost a little more than similar heirloom varieties and will likely mention the patent right there in the nursery catalog.

But surely you can give away packets of your great-grandmother’s heirloom tomato seeds, right? Wrong. In most states, there are rules that require tests of germination rates and weed-seed percentages any time seeds change hands. And while the sheriff likely won’t be patrolling seed swaps in search of repeat offenders, this issue is a hurdle for homesteaders who might want to turn that unique variety they saved or developed into a microbusiness.

What’s the solution? Lobby for your state to update their laws to match the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law (RUSSL), which allows seed swaps, seed libraries, and seed banks while still protecting the economic system that makes the production of new varieties viable. After all, free sharing of seeds is so valuable that the US Patent office used to spend nearly a third of their budget mailing out packets to farmers. Who says your great-grandmother’s heirloom tomato seeds are any less valuable?

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