New Sharing Website Links Farmers, Saves Seeds

Seed packets for sharing at The Heritage Seed Library John Carey/Getty Images
Seed packets for sharing at The Heritage Seed Library John Carey/Getty Images

If you're looking for heirloom Tuscarora Bread beans for your garden, Tom and Kris Fox from Jamestown, New York have the seeds. The couple trades them for other seeds of indigenous or local varieties they don't currently have. Don't want Tuscarora beans? No problem. Some 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) away In California, West County Sue (as she goes by on the site) wants to trade her heirloom tomato seeds that date back before 1890.

The Foxes and West County Sue are among the small farmers and gardeners who have signed up to use a new seed-sharing website Global Seed Network (GSN). The site, which is the brainchild of the Center for Food Safety, links small growers across the nation so they can swap different, sometimes rare, heirloom seeds.

Think of the site like a Match.com for seeds. Instead of trading personal information with singles and winding up on a date, GSN users create profiles to share their seeds.

The Center for Food Safety built the site to increase seed diversity and save threatened species.  Users can access the network for free, and search, among other attributes, by climate, region, soil type, water requirements, and resistance to specific pests and blights. The site has been popular with growers under age 35 who might buy non-GMO seeds from commercial sites. 

"When you find seeds you like, you can request the seeds from another user and then the GSN connects the two users to coordinate over email," says Rebecca Spector, West Coast director for Center for Food Safety and Global Seed Network project director, via email.

Seed saving and sharing is nothing new. We've been doing it for centuries to preserve the traits different fruits and vegetables offer, including flavor, resilience and pest-resistance. Seed Savers Exchange, for example, was started in 1975 with just two seed varieties: 'Grandpa Ott's' morning glory and 'German Pink' tomato, which were brought to the U.S. from Bavaria in the 1870s. Today the exchange is totally digital and boasts 13,000 members and 20,000 different plant varieties.

But the main thrust of modern seed sharing focuses on conserving crop genetic diversity. "Seventy percent of American households garden in some form or another," says Bill McDorman, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, who helped review the CFS network. "If we can get millions of gardeners to return to seed saving, we can rebuild the genetic foundation of a sustainable food system."  

And that's a critical part of why so many people participate in seed saving — since the beginning of the 20th century, 75 percent of the world's seed varieties have disappeared.

But believe it or not, sharing seeds isn't as simple as it sounds. While it's not technically illegal, state and federal laws, including the Federal Seed Act, regulate the distribution of seeds and require they be tested and labeled to guarantee authenticity.

These laws are intended to protect farmers from buying bad, or contaminated seeds, but the regulations have made it difficult for "seed libraries" and other exchanges to take root. Seed libraries let users "check-out" seeds, let their plant "go-to-seed" and then return their new seeds to the library for other members to share. They're often located in local libraries.

In June 2016, the Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, came under fire from state officials who told the library to shutter its seed exchange program. The state said the library was in violation of the state's 2004 Seed Act, which regulates seed sale and distribution. The library did not have the financial resources to comply with the law, which created a "licensing requirement for all seed distributors." Both sides ultimately agreed to a compromise, which allowed the library to host seed swap events.

Moreover, most large farmers use seeds owned by agribusiness giants like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont, which hold patents on their products. Their seeds are genetically engineered for specific traits such as pest and blight resistance.

Heirloom tomato seeds being dried and saved for planting.
Heirloom tomato seeds being dried and saved for planting.
Anne Chadwick Williams/Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images

"Right now, the vast majority of seeds in the U.S. are owned and controlled by a handful of chemical corporations ... which own more than 60 percent of the world's seed supply," Spector says. "At the hand of these corporations, the U.S. has lost 93 percent of our fruit and vegetable seed diversity in only the last 80 years. These corporations have turned seeds into a corporate commodity ...[that] threatens the ability of small farmers, gardeners, breeders and researchers to save and share important seeds."

To show just how tense seed sharing has become, Monsanto won't let farmers trade seeds, or even plant seeds leftover from the previous year. Instead, the farmers, under a "stewardship" agreement, must continue buying seeds from the company year after growing year. If not, the company will take the farmers to court.

"We purse these matters for three main reasons," Monsanto says on its website. "First, no business can survive without being paid for its product. Second, the loss of this revenue would hinder our ability to invest in research and development to create new products to help farmers ...Third, it would be unfair to the farmers that honor their agreements to let others get away with getting it for free."

These hurdles are why small farmers and gardeners are increasingly resorting to grassroots seed exchanges. The Global Seed Network is a high-tech iteration of that idea. "By teaching gardeners to save seeds again no matter what, we teach them to look for genetic mistakes and learn to take advantage of them," Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance's McDorman says. "This is how diversity was created in the first place."