A sharing economy for plants: Seed libraries are sprouting up



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Got a license for those seeds?
xuanhuongho/Shutterstock.com

Michael Carolan, Colorado State University

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.

Seed swap at the ‘Harvesting Change: Food and Community’ gathering in Detroit, Michigan, May 20, 2014.
W.K. Kellogg Foundation, CC BY-ND

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.

Seed advertising card, 1887.
Boston Public Library, CC BY

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.

Benton County Nursery Co. seed catalogue, 1960.
Internet Archive Book Images

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.

A librarian from the Tulsa City and County Community Library in Oklahoma explains their seed program.

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.The Conversation

Michael Carolan, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Affairs, College of Liberal Arts, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mangrove forests can rebound thanks to climate change – it’s an opportunity we must take



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Mangroves growing strong.
Ali Suliman/Shutterstock

Christian Dunn, Bangor University

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.

The roots of mangroves provide shelter and nursery habitat for juvenile fish.
Damsea/Shutterstock

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.The Conversation

Christian Dunn, Lecturer in Wetland Science, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fresh thinking: the carbon tax that would leave households better off



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The UNSW climate dividend proposal will be launched on Wednesday by the Member for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps.
Shutterstock

Richard Holden, UNSW and Rosalind Dixon, UNSW

Today, as part of the UNSW Grand Challenge on Inequality, we release a study entitled A Climate Dividend for Australians that offers a practical solution to the twin problems of climate change and energy affordability.

It’s a serious, market-based approach to address climate change through a carbon tax, but it would also leave around three-quarters of Australians financially better off.

It is based on a carbon dividend plan formulated by the Washington-based Climate Leadership Council, which includes luminaries such as Larry Summers, George Schultz and James Baker. It is similar to a plan proposed by the US (and Australian) Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

How it would work

Carbon emissions would be taxed at A$50 per ton, with the proceeds returned to ordinary Australians as carbon dividends.

The dividends would be significant — a tax-free payment of about A$1,300 per adult.

The average household would be A$585 a year better off after taking account of price increases that would flow through from producers.




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Trying to measure the savings from the carbon tax is a mug’s game


If those households also cut their energy consumption as a result of the tax they would be even better off.

And the payment would be progressive, meaning the lowest-earning households would get the most. The lowest earning quarter would be A$1,305 a year better off.

Untaxed exports, fewer regulations

For energy and other producers making things to sell to Australians, the tax would do what all so-called Pigouvian taxes do — make them pay for the damage they do to others.

But Australian exporters to countries without such schemes would have their payments rebated.

Imports from countries without such schemes would be charged “fees” based on carbon content.




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This means Australian companies subjected to the tax wouldn’t be disadvantaged by imports from countries without it, and nor would importers from countries with such a tax.

The plan would permit the rollback of other restrictions on carbon emissions and expensive subsidies.

Our estimates suggest the rollbacks have the potential to save the Commonwealth A$2.5 billion per year.

It’s working overseas

Our plan is novel in the Australian context, but similar to one in the Canadian province of British Columbia which has a carbon tax that escalates until it reaches C$50 per ton, with proceeds returned to citizens via a dividends.




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Taxpayers will back a carbon tax if they get a cheque in the mail


Alaska also pays long-term dividends from common-property resources. The proceeds from its oil reserves have been distributed to citizens since 1982, totalling up to US$2,000 per person.

It could be phased in

We would be open to a gradual approach. One option we canvass in the report is beginning with a A$20 per metric ton tax and increasing it by A$5 a year until it reaches A$50 after six years.

The dividends would grow with the tax rate, but the bulk of households would immediately be better off in net terms and much better off over time.

And it would be simple

Our plan doesn’t create loopholes or incentives to get handouts from the government, as have previous plans that directed proceeds to polluters.

It will not satisfy climate-change deniers, but then no plan for action on climate change would do that — other than perhaps the governmment’s direct action policy, which provides a costly taxpayer-funded boondoggle to selected winners.




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But for those who understand that climate change is real, our plan balances the important benefits we gain from economic development and associated carbon emissions against the social cost of those emissions.

It does it in a way that provides compensation to all Australians, but on an equal basis, making the lowest-income Australians substantially better off.

It is the sort of policy that politicians who believe in both the realities of climate change as well as the power and benefits of markets ought to support.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW and Rosalind Dixon, Professor of Law, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s legalisation of rhino horn trade: disaster or opportunity?


Hubert Cheung, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University, and Yifu Wang, University of Cambridge

The Chinese government will be reopening the nation’s domestic rhino horn trade, overturning a ban that has stood since 1993. An outcry since the announcement has led to the postponement of the lifting of the ban, which currently remains in place.




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The directive, if instituted, would require that rhino horn be sourced sustainably from farmed animals and that its use is limited to traditional Chinese medicine, scientific and medical research, preserving antique cultural artefacts, and as educational materials.

The announcement has been widely condemned. The United Nations Environmental Program called it “alarming”. But done carefully and correctly, and with necessary international consultation, it doesn’t have to add to the threat to rhinos. Indeed, it could even support rhino conservation.

A legal trade of rhino horns, as seen here, could ensure income goes to legitimate conservation efforts as opposed to criminals.
Paul Fleet/Shutterstock

Rhino horns regrow and can be sustainably and humanely harvested from live animals. Those arguing for legalisation say that a well-regulated trade could be a source of funding for expensive rhino conservation. It could also help reduce poverty and support development around protected areas.

A legal trade could also provide an alternative supply of horns, where income goes to legitimate conservation and development efforts, rather than to criminals, which is currently the case.

Rhino horn for medicinal use

The directive from Beijing stipulates that rhino horn for medicinal use must come from rhinos bred specifically outside of zoos (such as at dedicated horn-farming facilities). The ground-up horn powder would then be certified under a scheme developed by a coalition of Chinese regulatory agencies.

These agencies should draw from China’s experience regulating the medicinal use of pangolin scales to make sure poached horn does not infiltrate the legal marketplace. Though strictly controlled since 2008, illegal pangolin products continue to be seized frequently throughout China.

According to the directive, the medicinal use of rhino horn will be restricted to treating urgent, serious and rare diseases. This is consistent with what traditional Chinese medicine practitioners see as the appropriate application of rhino horn. Strict guides for clinical application will be needed to prevent misuse and overuse, particularly given the length of time that rhino horn has been unavailable to law-abiding clinicians.

Existing rhino horn stocks

Beyond medicine, the directive stipulates that people who already own horns will be able to declare their stocks. The government will then issue identification and certification records. After this, the horns must be sealed and stored safely, and not traded under any circumstances, barring gift-giving and inheritance.

This part of the directive is particularly concerning, as such a scheme will be complex, potentially giving owners of poached rhino horns smuggled into China a get-out-of-jail-free card. Lessons should be learned from the ivory trade in Hong Kong, where poached ivory has been laundered into legal stocks thanks to inadequate record-keeping and lax enforcement.

This section of the directive also raises concerns about the development of a socially accepted practice of gifting rhino horn akin to that of Vietnam. There, rhino horn has been found to be given as a gift for terminally ill family members and in business settings, where horns are offered as bribes to government officials. Strict enforcement will essential if China is to make sure illegal trading under the guise of gifts is not to spread.

China will have to work with countries where the rhinos live in Asia and Africa.
Kevin Folk/Unsplash

Working with China

China will have to work with countries where rhinos live, including range states in both Asia and in Africa, as well as other rhino conservation stakeholders around the world. Swaziland and South Africa have previously proposed legalising the international trade in horn as a mechanism to fund and bolster conservation efforts.

Domestic trade in horn is legal in South Africa, and China and South Africa will have to coordinate to make sure their domestic marketplaces support rhino conservation and don’t enable transnational laundering and trade.

Beijing’s decision has certainly attracted immediate and fierce criticism from some conservation and animal welfare organisations. This criticism is exacerbated by different moral perspectives. Some people see the sale and consumption of rhino horn to fund conservation as morally repulsive. For others, it is legitimate and pragmatic.

Whichever side of the debate you stand on, the priority should be conservation outcomes and making sure that China’s newly legalised domestic horn trade strengthens rather than dangerously undermines rhino protection efforts. Rhino conservationists will need to find common ground with Beijing. This requires an appreciation of different cultural and moral values, and the use of evidence on how to minimise risks to rhino under the directive.

Responding to the widespread criticism, Chinese officials clarified that the implementation of the directive will be postponed. The government has also launched a short-term enforcement drive against illegal trading of rhino horn, which will run until the end of the year.

While heightened enforcement actions are welcome, it indicates that China can do much more to tackle illegal wildlife trade. China must strictly enforce its own regulations once its domestic horn trade has been opened.




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Postponing implementation gives Beijing time to develop a detailed and robust set of regulations. Now is the time for rhino range states, conservation scientists and concerned groups around the world to work with Beijing so that the impending domestic horn trade in China can be a positive for rhino conservation.The Conversation

Hubert Cheung, PhD Candidate in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University, and Yifu Wang, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.