Abasic principle of any library is that you return what you take out. By that standard, the new scheme at Hampshire College’s library is a roll of the dice. Since last November, librarians have been lending out packets of seeds, allowing people to plant them, and checking them back in if—and only if—the borrower manages to grow thriving plants in the meantime.
The Hampshire College project is part of a small but growing group of “seed libraries” across the country, local centers that aim to promote heirloom gardening and revive a more grass-roots approach to seed breeding.
The circulating-library model might seem like a strange fit with gardening. When you check out books and DVDs, you’re supposed to bring them back so others can use them, but with seeds, there’s a strong chance nothing will come back at all. And, in a world where fruit and vegetable seeds are available for just a few dollars a packet, free seeds aren’t a pressing need most places.
But libraries have another goal as well, archiving and preserving knowledge. On this front, seed libraries see themselves as an important part of a bigger movement, to bring the issue of global plant diversity down to the community level, where many believe it belongs.
The agribusiness model has given the world cheap, abundant food, but it has also reduced the variety of crops we eat to a handful of massively grow-able varieties. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost over the last century as farmers have moved to high-yielding, genetically modified seeds. This dependence on a few kinds of plants leaves our food supply not only genetically impoverished, but also more vulnerable to blight. (Peru, which grew many varieties of potatoes, survived the potato blight much better than Ireland, which grew only one.)
The mission of cataloging and saving seeds has fallen mainly to big seed banks and academic researchers. There are 7.4 million seed samples conserved in professionally managed seed vaults worldwide; the biggest—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean—holds seeds for more than 770,000 distinct plants.
But those seeds are locked away, not reproducing, waiting for plant scientists or a planetary food emergency to call them into action. This is why, to their proponents, seed libraries occupy an important (if still small) role in that bigger story: They actually bring plants into circulation, town by town, encouraging local variety and even potentially developing new strains.
“The more seeds you can get out into the field, the broader the base of conservation,” says Stephen Brush, a retired ecologist at the University of California Davis. “In the gene bank, evolution is frozen, there’s no more natural crossing. Seed [libraries] aren’t meant to replace the gene bank, but to complement it, and one of their advantages is they contribute to ongoing evolution.”
A few years ago, there were only a handful of seed banks around the country, including Richmond Grows in California, which is regarded as the unofficial spiritual center of the movement. Now there are more than 200, including libraries in Concord, Groton, and Littleton. They’re often housed in public libraries, but also sometimes attached to farms, greenhouses, or other local institutions.
The Hampshire College seed library developed out of a senior project by Hannah Haskell, who graduated last May. Just before leaving Hampshire, she delivered two boxes containing 250 kinds of seeds to the library, including many varieties of beets, broccoli, radishes, and pumpkins. College librarians began lending the seeds the following November.
They started slowly, with 12 of the easiest kinds of seeds to grow and return packaged in small coin envelopes affixed with the same kind of barcodes you find on library books. The library is still sorting out its lending policy, and in particular whether borrowers need first to take a class in plant propagation. The Hampshire librarians know that they’ll lose inventory along the way, and they’re prepared to live with that. But seeds present another challenge to librarians: They can come back, but different.
“Self-pollinating” plants like beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce have both male and female parts in the same flower, so they tend to predictably produce seeds that grow the exact same kind of plant. But “open-pollinating” plants like squashes and corn require pollen to travel from one plant to another—and there’s a significant chance that pollen from some other variety of plant, borne by wind or insect, will get in and create an unwanted hybrid. Katie Campbell-Nelson, vegetable extension educator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that one year she planted kale too close to collard greens. She saved seeds from that year’s harvest, and, “The kale I got next year was just this bitter horrible cross.”
At the Concord Seed Lending Library, which opened last year, “We only asked people to return seed on ‘selfers’,” says cofounder Enid Boasberg. Even so, the record wasn’t great. “Maybe five people [out of around 270] returned seed. This year hopefully we’ll get more.”
Aside from helping neighbors grow new varieties of plants, seed libraries can also help preserve local strains. Rebecca Newburn of Richamond Grows says that her neighbor had been growing his own variety of Italian heirloom beans for 23 years, and gave some of his seeds to the library after it opened. Similarly, Boasberg cites what she calls the “Polish Lady Tomato,” whose seeds, she wrote in an e-mail, had been in the possession of “an elderly Polish lady who had brought them from the Old Country.” The seeds are now being planted all over Concord.
Seed libraries may not shift the trajectory of American agriculture, but over time, boosters hope, they’ll allow communities to refine seed lines tailored to their regions. “Through the generations, we’re going to get seeds that are more locally adapted to grow and thrive in our area,” says Thea Atwood, who runs the Hampshire College seed library.
Brush acknowledges that seed libraries are “whimsical,” and unlikely on their own to reverse the long trends in commercial agriculture. But when it comes to expanding agricultural diversity, there’s a sense in which every little bit helps. “The more exchange you get, the more people who have their hands on that seed,” he says, “the better the seed becomes.”
Kevin Hartnett writes the Brainiac blog for Ideas. He can be reached at email@example.com.