Thanksgiving may be uniquely American, but its core spirit was exported from harvest festivals stretching back for millennia. Its essence is being grateful for what one has, while noting a duty to share one’s good fortune.
In my new book, “The Food Sharing Revolution: How Start-Ups, Pop-Ups, and Co-Ops are Changing the Way We Eat,” I look at sharing from a variety of angles – good, bad and downright ugly. One example is the custom of seed sharing, which can be traced from indigenous societies and the earliest fall festivals that ultimately inspired American Thanksgiving.
For centuries, people in agrarian societies shared seeds to help each other subsist from year to year. Today, thanks to intellectual property rights and often well-intentioned laws, our ability to share seeds is restricted. Realizing this, food activists, garden enthusiasts and community leaders are trying to make it easier by making seeds available through libraries. Surely there’s nothing controversial about that, right? Actually, there is.
Free seeds by mail
Until the early 1800s, U.S. farmers either saved seed from their own crops or obtained it through personal networks. Then in 1819, Treasury Secretary William Crawford called upon all ambassadors and military officers stationed overseas to collect seeds and bring them home, where they would be shared freely.
Initially this program was informal, but in 1839 Commissioner of Patents Henry Ellsworth persuaded Congress to appropriate funds for it. Ellsworth owned large tracts of land in the Midwest, so his motives may not have been strictly public-minded. Soon his office was distributing 60,000 seed packages annually through the U.S. mail. By the turn of the 20th century, the Department of Agriculture was shipping a billion free packages of seed each year.
This was relatively uncontroversial until 1883, when a group of representatives from mostly vegetable seed trade firms formed the American Seed Trade Association. No business model can work if the government gives away for free what private merchants want to sell.
After decades of lobbying, the group convinced Congress to end the free seed program in 1924. Without granting ownership rights to plant breeders, members argued, there would be no incentive to “improve” seed for qualities such as yield, tolerance, germination length, root depth or aesthetics. As two plant breeders put it in 1919:
“The man who originates a new plant which may be of incalculable benefit to the whole country gets nothing – not even fame – for his pains, as the plants can be propagated by anyone.”
The 1930 Plant Patent Act was a watershed. It initially applied only to nursery plants propagated through cuttings, such as roses and apple trees. Soon, however, breeders of agricultural commodities pressed to expand the law in recognition of their labor. As a result, the majority of commercial crops and garden plants in use today were developed by agricultural companies, to the point that three companies – Bayer Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – account for roughly 50 percent of all global seed sales.
Today the seed industry is highly controlled. Every state has laws that require suppliers to obtain licenses, test seeds to ensure they are the variety advertised and properly label them. And the federal government regulates seed sales across state lines.
These laws exist for good reason. If farmers buy seed that turns out to be the wrong variety, or doesn’t germinate, their livelihood is at risk. Seed laws hold providers accountable and protect buyers. Some laws apply even to those who offer seeds for barter, exchange or trade.
Seed sharing redux: Seed libraries
But another community pillar is distributing seeds without charge: Libraries. The process works much the same as with books. Patrons receive seeds and plant them, then allow some of their plants to go to seed and return those seeds to the library for others’ use.
According to some proponents, there are more than 660 seed libraries in 48 states. Public libraries, universities and secondary schools are getting involved. Their motives range from preserving plant diversity and local history to enhancing food access and building regional agricultural resiliency in the face of climate change.
One of the nation’s first seed libraries is the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library, or BASIL, which opened in 2000 at the Berkeley Ecology Center in Berkeley, California and is run by volunteers. Sascha DuBrul, its founder, is said to have came up with the idea after wanting to find a home for seeds that were left when the University of California, Berkeley closed its campus farm.
People who I interviewed for my research say the seed library movement has grown exponentially, starting with a few pioneers but expanding rapidly in the past five years. The movement includes food and community activists, gardeners, lawyers and citizens who support the idea that everyone has a right to seed.
Libraries don’t test seeds or place expiration dates on packaged seed, so some states have moved to regulate seed libraries. For example, in 2014 the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture informed the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg that it was violating the state’s Seed Act of 2004 and needed to follow the same stringent requirements as agricultural supply companies.
Labels had to be in English and clearly state the plant’s species name or commonly accepted name, and the library had to conduct germination and purity analyses. Failure to do so, one county commissioner asserted, could threaten local food supplies through what she called “agri-terrorism.”
The seed library eventually reopened after officials
agreed that patrons would not be required to bring seed back to the
library, and that seeds it provided would be commercially packaged. It now hosts seed swap events to encourage person-to-person sharing.
Defending the right to share
Seed sharing advocates believe, as one who I will call Barry told me, that “people ought to be able share seeds without being treated like they’re Monsanto.” Many are alarmed by government crackdowns on seed libraries.
I met Barry in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was advising state officials on adding an exemption to the state’s seed law for seed libraries. “I’ve made the rounds”, he confessed when asked how many states’ revised seed laws have his fingerprints on them.
Since 2015, states ranging from Minnesota to Nebraska, Illinois and, more recently, Alaska have adopted such exemptions. In North Carolina, seed libraries are legal thanks to a blanket seed sharing exemption that applies to all nonprofit oganizations. Alabama exempts any providers who sell up to US$3,000 worth of seed.
In September 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1810, known among activists as the Seed Exchange Democracy Act, into law. The measure amended state law to exempt seed libraries from burdensome testing and labeling requirements.
Despite these successes, a number of activists I spoke with fear that agribusinesses seeking to protect their intellectual property rights will push back if the seed library movement keeps expanding. The hard reality is that sharing is not a right, even in this age of the so-called sharing economy, if the thing people want to share is a valuable commodity.
Humans have become adept at destroying natural habitats. Indeed, we’re so good at it we’ve changed the very makeup and climate of our planet. But there may be signs the natural world is fighting back by protecting itself against rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, and we face the tantalising prospect of helping this process.
A recent study found that mangrove forests could be adapting to climate change by growing beyond their usual range. The risk of several days of continuous frost, which previously kept these trees in tropical and subtropical areas near the equator, is continuously shifting towards the poles. As average global temperatures rise, mangroves are able to increase their growth and expand their range beyond the equator.
Mangrove forests are coastal wetlands made up of a dense jumble of trees and shrubs capable of living in salt or brackish water. Famous for their tangle of roots sticking up from the ground and dropping down from branches, mangrove forests can grow out into the sea and create almost impenetrable mazes of narrow channels along shorelines.
Mangroves protect coastlines, treat polluted waters, provide livelihoods and resources for some of the world’s poorest people and are home to an impressive number of species – many of which are commercially important. It’s been suggested that the majority of the global fish catch relies, either directly or indirectly, on mangroves.
Despite their value, humans have also done an impressive job over the last century of destroying them to make way for coastal developments, aquaculture and by logging them for timber and fuel production. Not to mention destroying their natural water courses and polluting the ground they grow in.
So the possibility that climate change could be benefiting these habitats is promising indeed. In the long run, this could help society adapt to climate change and even reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Adapting to climate change
One feature of mangroves that we’ve long benefited from is the protection they offer to our coastlines. Waves lose their power passing through dense mangrove forests, and they can offer protection from storms, typhoons, hurricanes and tsunamis.
Their mass of roots –- both above and below ground – help to bind and build sediments, meaning mangrove areas can grow vertically, which is a clear asset in the face of rising sea levels. Expanding mangrove forests could therefore help protect us from the devastating effects of extreme weather that become more likely with climate change.
Mangrove forests are also incredibly productive ecosystems, which means that lots of carbon dioxide is taken in and used by the trees and shrubs as they grow. When this organic matter dies, a proportion of it forms the sediment underneath the mangrove forest. As a result, carbon remains trapped as semi-decomposed plant matter, and is unable to re-enter the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. This ensures mangroves can actually act as giant stores – or sinks – of carbon.
Research suggests that mangroves could be better carbon stores than the coastal habitats they are encroaching on – opening the possibility for mangroves to combat the very causes of global warming. In this way, mangroves act as Earth’s natural defences to climate change –- protecting the planet by striking at the very cause of the problem.
Around the world, some mangrove forests are being given legal protection and large-scale restoration works are taking place with varying degrees of success, as one study in Sri Lanka found.
In America and Australia work is being undertaken to restore areas of mangrove dieback following ill-considered developments and the use of herbicides. Conservationists and academics are researching where mangrove restoration would be most beneficial, and developing the best methods for these projects around the world.
The knowledge that mangroves could both benefit from a changing climate and protect us from some of its worst effects demands a renewed vigour in promoting these wetlands. It also raises a question. Should resources be ploughed into maintaining ecosystems where regional changes in the climate are unlikely to help them prosper? Or should we concentrate our efforts on helping expand habitats that are not only resilient to climate change but can help mitigate climate change itself?
Perhaps it is time to move towards the latter and act as ecosystem physicians, giving healing and healable habitats like mangroves every opportunity to do what they do best.