Of all the areas where food rights are threatened by government over-reach, the most insidious may involve seeds. Not only are seeds essential to the food production process, but any threat to their availability, or alteration of their integrity, is a threat to human health and even survival. In this analysis, Vermont farmer and lawyer John Klar examines legal encroachments on our freedom to simply give one another vegetable seeds, in the interests of protecting corporate control.
By John Klar
In recent years, each of the fifty states has enacted laws governing the transfer of seeds.
Vermont first passed a law regulating seed sales in 1991. Current law (six Vermont Statutes Annotated Chapter 35 ) provides authority over all seed “transported” (Section 642 (a)(1)) but in practice (thus far) the State of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) does not prohibit seed swaps at which individuals exchange heirloom and other varieties for free.
Not all states are so permissive. As many as 30% of the states prohibit even these types of exchange without onerous requirements for testing, labeling, and permitting. California exempts transfers between “neighbors” – which is defined in extraordinarily narrow terms as confined to people living within three miles from one another (AB-2470). Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Minnesota are just a few of the states that have taken a very strict view of seed swaps, even where there is no consideration (money) involved. In such states, churches, libraries and other community organizations are prohibited from organizing free seed exchanges without expensive licensing.
Laws which purport to protect farmers instead protect large corporations. Since the patenting of seeds by industrial agriculture began, a tightening of restrictions on “neighborly” transfers of heirloom varieties has occurred in tandem with ever more alarming development of genetically modified vegetables.
Terminator technologies specifically design seeds which are sterile, so as to compel farmers to purchase all their seed annually from corporate producers. While touted as cost-saving, studies reveal that in the long term, such developments end up costing farmers more. That these seeds infect neighboring plants through cross-pollination, inhibiting the reproductive abilities of organic varieties of similar species, has been highly publicized. Less known are related “technologies” like “Traitor” seed varieties – plants which will only grow to productive maturity by the administration of chemicals (or combinations thereof), supplied by agro-chemical interests.
In eighty years, we have lost some 93% of our heirloom vegetable seeds – irrevocably. These species are not recoverable. In the interest of profits and productivity, new “engineered” plants have been hailed as humanity’s saviors.
Are these plants our destroyers instead? Wendell Berry has written of the importance of diversity: “We should be producing the fullest variety of foods to be consumed locally, in the countryside itself and in nearby towns and cities: meats, grains, table vegetables, fruits and nuts, dairy products, poultry and eggs.” (“An Argument for Diversity,” Wendell Berry (1998)). Wes Jackson has contributed a wealth of observations on the imperative of species variation in plant life and food crops, noting “We depend almost exclusively on flowering plants, the last of earth’s major types of plants to evolve….We plant most of the agricultural world in a few kinds of grasses, such as rice, wheat and corn. Our grain crops are either annuals or treated as such and all are produced primarily in monoculture. When an unspecialized and versatile species makes such a specialized demand upon the environment, a split between humans and nature seems inevitable.” (Altars of Unhewn Stone, North Point Press, New York, 1987, p.148).
In what Wendell Berry properly terms “reductionism,” we oversimplify the world and its complexity into scientific concepts that are easily comprehended but fall short of true understanding. If we “reduce” our concept of food production to monocultural industrialism; reduce true farmers to nonexistence; and reduce crops to “what the market demands,” we cripple our environment and ourselves. Thus we narrow our seed varieties to what is “most productive” at the expense of what maintains ecological diversity and balance. Rachel Carson observed in her seminal book Silent Spring that insects and bees depend on species diversity for their very survival: “These insects, so essential to our agriculture and indeed to our landscape as we know it, deserve something better from us than the senseless destruction of their habitat. Honeybees and wild bees depend heavily on such “weeds” as goldenrod, mustard, and dandelions for pollen that serves as the food of their young.” (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1962, p. 73). Striking here is that in its Code of Vermont Rules, Vermont’s VAAFM identifies wild mustard as a “restricted noxious-weed seed”, which are defined as “seeds which are very objectionable in agricultural crops, lawns and gardens of this state and which can be controlled by good agricultural practices or the use of herbicides.” (CVR 20-031-019, SEED STANDARD, Section II Definitions, BB).
What these and other veteran food activists have cautioned is not just the destruction of community and culture, but the threat to food security – to human existence – occasioned by such narrow and greedy dominance. In the case of state regulatory attacks on the freedom of individuals to exchange seed for food, such dominance has cloaked itself under the rubric of preventing agri-terrorism (Pennsylvania); mislabeling; cross-pollination; or the spread of poisonous or invasive species. The noose on species diversity and human freedom is steadily drawn tighter, by government entities which expand their power and budgets while enlarging the market share of huge multi-national corporations that now dominate nearly all food production. A compendium of intelligent assessments of these trends is found in Seed Sovereignty, Food Security, Vandava Shiva (ed.), North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2016.
It seems few state agencies embrace the numerous vitally important benefits of free exchanges of heirloom seeds: frugality and self-reliance (strong Vermont traditions) have no “value” to bureaucrats – where is the profit? Neither does safeguarding genetic diversity. But we tolerate corporate/governmental intrusion at our peril: “James B. Kendrick at the University of California at Berkeley says that if we had to rely on the genetic resources now available in the United States to minimize genetic vulnerability in the future, we would soon experience significant crop losses that would accelerate as time went by. Roughly one-third of our current crop comes from four inbred lines, which is roughly the same as the amount of variation that could be found in as few as two individuals.” (Wes Jackson, Altars of Unhewn Stone, North Point Press, New York, 1987, p.73). But that was in 1987 – we are even more “specialized” in our crop variations today; more chemical dependent; more toxified.
The organic/local food movement is the answer to this seemingly inexorable corporate takeover of human health. Local varieties and their dissemination combat genetic erosion, encourage species adaptation, and preserve plant DNA that might someday (literally) save the world.
Here in Vermont, many of us seek an idyllic “back-to-the land” mantra not as quaint nostalgia but as security for our future. We distrust industrial pseudo-food laced with chemicals, preservatives, and dubious genetics, trucked thousands of petroleum- consuming miles from that strange, sinking land of California. Seeking food security as well as food safety, we clutch our Gilfeather turnips and fiddleheads with earnest attachment: there is a law pending (H.65) which would recognize the unique Gilfeather (actually an interspecies cross between a rutabaga and a turnip) as Vermont’s state vegetable, and there is an annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro, Vermont (home of John Gilfeather, originator) each fall.
Once more I quote from Wes Jackson (referring to perennial polycultures), who has cautioned us of the conflicts of interest that we see inherent in corporate America, lurking suspiciously behind state regulation of neighborly seed swaps: “What can be expected of agribusiness and government in the way of research on perennial polycultures? Little help will likely come from private seed companies. Who can blame them for not producing a perennial or groups of perennials that could put them out of business?….[And] if these companies are to be involved, they will likely want in return patents on their products.” (Altars of Unhewn Stone, North Point Press, New York, 1987, p. 116).
We might also say that “little help will come from state or federal government agencies.” Swapping our old vegetable seeds in today’s America is a revolutionary act. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned us of the growing silence of songbirds in springtime. Yet, her alarms about the threats posed by releasing chemical concoctions into our soil and water have not halted our contamination of the environment: I pray the decline of spring songbirds not be joined by genetic sterility like the devious creation of “Terminator” plant genetics. Bees, monarch butterflies, and human beings are all under threat. Undermining plant diversity in the interest of short-term gain, is idiotic, yet rampant.
Tracing whether there have been trade-offs of federal subsidies or insidious ag-ind
ustry influences would be a welcome investigation, which might explain the patchwork of state enforcement practices. Both the American farmer and consumer must become informed about what is happening to our food supply in the name of “protection.”