Seed Libraries in Pennsylvania Allowed to Engage in Free Seed Exchange

PA Department of Agriculture Clarifies that Seed Act of 2004 Does Not Apply to Non-commercial Seed Libraries

Thanks to a statewide coalition of concerned advocates, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has clarified that seed libraries and other non-commercial seed exchanges are not subject to the cost-prohibitive licensing, labeling and testing requirements required of commercial seed distributors in the Seed Act of 2004 (Seed Act). In providing this clarification, Pennsylvania sets a precedent to protect and encourage seed libraries throughout the commonwealth.

The statewide coalition, led by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), Grow Pittsburgh (GP), the Public Interest Law Center, and members of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council (PFPC), as well as individual growers and organizations, worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) to clarify protocol about the Seed Act.  The Act was originally applied to a seed library at the Joseph T. Simpson Library in Mechanicsburg, PA, which severely limited its operations as a result.

Seed libraries are nonprofit, community-based organizations. Through seed libraries, growers maintain and increase biodiversity, as they save seeds from season to season, and share seeds with one another.  The number of seed libraries has surged in recent years; there are an estimated 26 seed libraries across the Commonwealth, with more than 350 nationwide. Concern about the compliance with the Seed Act has been a deterrent to seed library operations in Pennsylvania.

In 2015, the coalition sent a letter to Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture, Russell C. Redding, urging that PDA make clear its position.  In the letter, the coalition argued the licensing, labeling, and testing requirements under the Seed Act were being misapplied to seed exchanges like the one proposed by the Simpson Library. Because seed exchanges, “operate on a noncommercial basis and do not sell, offer for sale, expose for sale, or transport seeds,” the letter’s cosigners contend, nonprofit seed exchanges are not subject to these sections of the law.

Upon review of the letter, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture “determined the Simpson Library does not meet the definition of a ‘distributor’ as defined in the Seed Law because, “they are not selling, offering for sale or exposing seed for sale,” concluding that the “edicts of the Seed Law do not apply.” In addition to clarifying their earlier decision, the department has invited a representative from Grow Pittsburgh to participate with a PDA staff member in a non-commercial seed-sharing work group organized by the Association of American Seed Control Officials (AASCO).  The working group is drafting a proposal for the Recommended Uniform State Seed Law (RUSSL) that formally exempts “Non-commercial Seed Sharing” from the cost-prohibitive licensing, labeling, and testing required of commercial seed exchanges.

Sue Erdman, Director of the Simpson Library, is “pleased that the Department of Agriculture officials worked with us to clarify the rules governing seed libraries. This means that we can continue working with the community to promote home gardening and preservation of heirloom seed varieties.”

PASA Executive Director Brian Snyder issued the following statement: “We need regulation in the seed industry to protect farmers and other, more casual consumers. But we also need communities working together to make our food systems more accessible to all people. Seeds are a basic element of human life and wellbeing. Without this kind of informal cooperation among neighbors, that wellbeing is very much at risk.”

In addition to PASA, representatives and/or members of the following organizations cosigned the letter to PDA: Chester County Sierra Club Sustainable Agriculture Committee; Churchview Farm; Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF); Eastern Pennsylvania Permaculture Guild; Experimental Farm Network; Food Revolution Pittsburgh Cooking Club; Garfield Community Farm; GMO Free PA; Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank; Hazelwood Urban Farm; Lawrenceville United; Olde Allegheny Community Garden; Pennsylvania Farmers Union; Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council; Pittsburgh Public Market; Rodale Institute; Simpson Seed Library; Soil Generation; and The Greenhouse Project.

For more information, please contact:

Michele Spencer, PASA, michele@pasafarming.org, 814-349-9856 x17
Marisa Manheim, Grow Pittsburgh, marisa@growpittsburgh.org, 412-362-4769 x103
Amy Laura Cahn, Public Interest Law Center, acahn@pubintlaw.org, 267-546-1306

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