Seed-Sharing Snafu

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Photo by Fotolia/Richard Griffin
Seed sharing is an age-old practice that preserves seed diversity.

Did you know that in some states informally sharing seeds with your fellow gardeners is illegal? Hard to believe, but it’s true.

To ensure that seeds sold to farmers and gardeners are of good quality, every state has laws that require people who sell seeds to buy a permit and label their seeds with the variety name, germination percentage, presence of weed seeds, name and address of supplier, and more. Sounds OK, right? You’ve seen all of that information on the seed packets you buy. But in some states, seed-labeling laws define “sell” to include give away, transport, and even “possess with intent to … give away, or transport.” That’s right — you need a permit from the state to legally give away seeds.

Minnesota’s seed law, for example, is so broad that it basically prohibits gardeners from sharing or giving away seeds unless they buy an annual permit, have the germination of each seed lot tested, and attach a detailed label to each seed packet. This law is enforced by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which has recently told seed libraries that they can’t distribute free seeds to gardeners unless they buy a permit and provide detailed labeling, even though the libraries aren’t selling the seeds. (The penalty for violating this law, by the way, is a fine of up to $7,500 per day!)

The creation of seed libraries to facilitate seed sharing and preserve seed diversity has been spreading, with an estimated 300 libraries now operating nationally. Officials in several other states are now saying that the libraries can’t give away or exchange seeds unless they first obtain a permit and comply with the numerous requirements of the seed-labeling law. Needless to say, these actions have upset many gardeners who know the value of saving and sharing seeds that are highly adapted to their local conditions. Regulating seeds that are sold commercially is one thing, but applying such laws to seeds that are swapped or given away defies logic, history and common sense.

Neil Thapar, staff attorney at the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), has reviewed the laws in more than 30 states so far, and he reports that about 30 percent of them specify that sharing seeds without a permit is illegal. Almost all the laws contain vague language that needs to be clarified to explicitly exempt noncommercial seed-sharing activities, he says.

A national group, the Association of American Seed Control Officials (AASCO), has produced what’s called the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law. Even this model legislation appears to require permits for any seeds “transported” within a state, however.

Saving and sharing seeds is an age-old practice that should be encouraged. Given the challenges we face from climate change, we need to promote — not impede — the distribution of locally adapted farm and garden seeds. This issue may not seem like a big deal to seed-control officials, but it is a very big deal to thousands of home gardeners. AASCO should move quickly to revise its model law to exempt all forms of noncommercial seed sharing and distribution, and should take the lead in pressing for amendments in each state. In addition, other states should follow Alabama’s lead — its seed-control law explicitly allows farmer-to-farmer direct sales of up to $3,000 worth of seeds annually without a permit.

Hats off to the librarians and activists who are working to untangle this unfortunate mess. Please support them by signing the Save Seed Sharing petition. To follow all the news coverage on this issue, visit the SELC’s campaign partner, Shareable. If you’re working on seed laws in your state, share developments with these groups, and with us by emailing.

Post updates to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS state Facebook pages, too.