Victory for PA Seed Libraries

The Department of Agriculture (DOA) has reversed its interpretation of the Pennsylvania Seed Act, thanks in part to our advocacy work.

Seed libraries, often located in public libraries, are nonprofit organizations that collect, store, and distribute seeds. Members of the community are able to “check out,” grow, save, and store seeds for free. Seed libraries are important because they promote healthy lifestyles, provide free access to food, and maintain biodiversity. They not only benefit members of the community, but also strengthen local food systems. They can provide free and healthy food sources for communities in Pennsylvania, where one in eight Pennsylvanians is food insecure.

The Pennsylvania Seed Act is comprised of numerous protocols that include costly licensing, labeling, and testing standards. Under DOA’s initial interpretation of the Seed Act, non-profit Seed Libraries would have been placed under the same criteria as Seed Distributors. This new classification would have essentially subjected Seed Libraries to these protocols, potentially restricting seed libraries from fulfilling their goals of saving seeds, sharing seeds, and promoting sustainable local food system.

In June 2015 staff attorney Amy Laura Cahn co-signed a letter with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and other groups, urging DOA to reverse its interpretation. The letter also recommended that the DOA should provide technical assistance to establish and sustain seed libraries.

Thanks to that letter, DOA reversed its interpretation. DOA responded to Brian Snyder, executive director of PASA, saying that Seed Libraries “do not meet the definition of a ‘Distributor’ as defined in the seed law.” DOA went on to say that “the edicts of the Seed Law do not apply” to Seed Libraries, which will provide relief to nonprofits that may have been forced to close due to its restrictive regulations.

DOA acknowledged that they are in full support of the work that Seed Libraries do for communities and the preservation of seeds. “The Department encourages … libraries operating as community-based seed sharing programs. These practices will provide the communities they serve sound seed sources to produce quality food.”

This was truly a collaborative effort, as we partnered with the Simpson Seed Library, the Sustainable Economies Law Center, Grow Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, the PEnns State Extension offices, GMO-Free, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and of course, PASA. DOA’s decision to the reverse the interpretation of the act is a good first step. We will continue to support PASA in its hopes to introduce legislation amending the Seed Act to “create a clear legal space for the seed libraries, expressly exempting them from the licensing, labeling, and testing requirements of the Seed Act,” as recommended in the initial letter to the DOA.