You can read part 1 here.
The patenting of seeds[i] has made the thousands-year-old practice of seed saving illegal, as is the sharing of seeds from farmer to farmer. The most notorious case is that of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, whose canola crops were contaminated with Roundup Ready canola pollen blown into his fields from neighboring corporate farms. When Monsanto trespassed onto his fields, took samples, and found Roundup Ready canola plants mixed in with Schmeiser’s own canola plants, they sued him for violation of patents. Ultimately, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto, but also ruled that Schmeiser owed Monsanto nothing.
In my own city, seed sharing became an issue when in 2013 our local library decided to start a seed library. The project was begun with great hopes that patrons could check out seeds for their home gardens, with the understanding that they would save a portion of their seeds and return these to the library for next year’s use. [ii] Project leaders hoped this would preserve locally adapted seed varieties. Unfortunately, after the seed library came to the public’s attention, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture informed the library that they were in violation of a Minnesota statute that prohibited the exchange of non-commercial seeds. [iii] Library Manager Carla Powers commented, “ . . . the law went so far as to make it illegal for gardeners to exchange a handful of seeds with one another.”[iv] But this did not end the library’s efforts. Several ally organizations[v] stepped up to create an amendment to the statute that exempted the exchange of non-commercial seeds from testing, labeling and licensing laws. This inspired a state-wide effort to change the law, which was successfully accomplished in that year’s legislative session.[vi]
Vandana Shiva and Winona LaDuke talking with students, faculty, and staff about seeds
Resistance to patented seeds and prohibitions against seed saving have risen around the globe in seed-saving farmers’ networks and seed banks. Two women have been at the forefront of this movement, Vandana Shiva in India and Winona LaDuke here in the US. Shiva helped to establish one of the largest resistance movements, the seed-saving network Navdanya in India. Based on the Hindu principles of satyagraha — holding firmly to the truth, and swaraj and swadeshi – self-rule, Navdanya affirms farmers’ rights to determine their own lives and to produce, exchange, modify and sell seed. “The seed has become the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of its diversity,” wrote Vandana Shiva. “It embodies diversity and the freedom to stay alive.”[vii]
Here in Minnesota, Winona LaDuke has been at the forefront of efforts to protect indigenous food sovereignty, planting ancient indigenous varieties of corn on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, and securing the future of manoomin – sacred wild rice. The multiple varieties of manoomin were threated when the University of Minnesota began developing its own version of domesticated “wild” rice in the early 1900s, and in 2000, U of M plant geneticist, Ron Phillips, mapped the wild rice genome, making it available for public use.[viii] Most of what is now sold as “wild” rice is actually paddy-harvested patented “wild” rice grown in California. Ojibwe bands throughout Minnesota requested that U of M stop its genetic work on wild rice out of concern that GM wild rice plants would contaminate naturally occurring wild rice due to pollen being distributed through wind, water currents, and waterfowl. Receiving no response, they lobbied the state legislature, which in 2007 passed a law that stipulated regulations on the release of genetically modified wild rice.[ix]
Seed banks to protect the genetic diversity of seeds exist throughout world. Probably the best-know is the world’ largest, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Housed in vaults dug into the side of a mountain on a remote island in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago, with the capacity to house 2.25 billion seeds, the vault currently stores more than 4000 plants in a natural deep freeze. Often referred to as the “doomsday vault,” it was created to secure a duplicate of every food seed from around the world – a bulwark against the worst, a promise of possibility for the future. Every saved seed is a harbinger of hope.
For a senior project on motherhood, one of my students created replicas of dozens of different kinds of seeds out of pottery. To her, the seed was the quintessential symbol of motherhood. Like mothers and fathers everywhere, the mother plant sends out its offspring into the world in hopes that they will flourish and contribute to the life and well-being of the world.
Seeds are the very essence of life and resilience. Even though it’s winter here now in Minnesota, and the ground covered with more than two feet of snow, the woods are filled with an abundance of seeds just waiting for the conditions to be right to be released into the world. In the amorous spring they’ll begin the process of pollination and fertilization once again, coming into fruition in the summer, and releasing in fruits and vegetables and nuts, in grasses and grains, in berries and burrs in the fall. Traveling by animal feces, bird beaks, wind, and the fur coats of dogs, they will repopulate the earth in fruitful abundance.
I’ll soon join them, starting seeds in little containers filled with soil, add a bit of water, warm them under the grow light, and hope. This year I’ll grow mostly heirloom varieties, which unlike the hybridized versions, can reproduce themselves year to year, joining the long tradition of saving seeds to be planted next year, when perhaps my then one-year-old grandson — who now, like the seeds, is incubating safely inside his mother until the conditions are right for him to be born — will help me plant the seeds I’ve saved for his future.
People saved these seeds because they loved these seeds, and they thought we might love them, too . . . . Whoever saved the seed loved us before they knew us. . . .” – Ross Gay [x]
27 Organizations Working to Conserve Seed Biodiversity – Food Tank
Bouayad, Aurelian. April 2020. “Wild Rice Protectors: An Ojibwe Odyssey,” Environmental Law Review. Vol 22 25-42.
Duluth will be home to state’s first public seed library | MPR News.
Gay, Ross. 2022. Inciting Joy. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Krause, Kea. “What Seed Saving Can Teach Us About the End of the World,” Orion. Orion Magazine – What Seed-Saving Can Teach Us About the End of the World.
LaDuke, Winona. 2005. Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming. Boston: South End.
Popovitch, Trish. 2014. “The Seed Exchange Library that Fought the Law and Won” Seedstock. The Seed Exchange Library That Fought the Law and Won | Smart Cities Dive
Shiva, Vandana. 1997. Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Boston: South End Press.
[i] See “Seeds of Hope: Part One.”
[ii] The project was inspired by an intern for The Institute for a Sustainable Future, founded by Jamie Harvie and based in Duluth, Minnesota. Its mission is to “support and improve ecological health through advocacy, research, consultation and education.” Institute for a Sustainable Future (ISF) (isfusa.org)
[iii] Mn Statute 21.80-21.92.
[v] The Institute for a Sustainable Future, St. Paul Ramsey County Food and Nutrition Council, St Paul’s West Side Seed Library and Do it Green! Minnesota all worked on legislation, and The co-chairs of Minneapolis Home Grown Food Policy Council, Russ Henry and Nadja Berneche of Gardening Matters acted as mediators during the process (Popovitch).
[vi] The Minnesota seed laws can be read in full at the state’s Department of Agriculture website. The USDA provides a link to each state’s Department of Agriculture that show non-commercial seed exchange laws for the individual states. The Duluth Public Library was able to continue its seed library for about five years, but sadly eventually closed due to lack of promised support from the community gardeners and a reduction in staff.
[vii] Biopiracy, 126.
[viii] LaDuke, 175.
[ix] While the legislation creates some protections, it does guarantee the safety of wild rice, which has now also come under threat by the degradation and pollution of wild rice lakes by Enbridge Line 3, which was constructed through wild rice lakes last year despite years of public hearings and public comment strongly opposed to the pipeline, as well as prayer and protest and water protector resistance. Those protecting the waters were arrested for defending the water and rice for us all. Many are still awaiting trial. In 2019, the White Earth Band announced the adoption of a Tribal ordinance entitled “Rights of Manoomin” (Bouayad).
[x] Inciting Joy, 36-37.
One thought on “Seeds of Hope: Part Two by Beth Bartlett”
“The seed has become the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of its diversity,” wrote Vandana Shiva. “It embodies diversity and the freedom to stay alive.
Oh, these words resonate truth. Thank you.
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