On Friday, American warplanes began dropping bombs on areas controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Two months earlier, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture went after another potential terrorist threat: The Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, a small town eight miles southwest of Harrisburg.
The library is not being considered a breeding ground for jihadists, but it has been implicated as a sleeper threat to our nation’s food supply.
This past April, the folks in Mechanicsburg opened a “seed library,” a place where local residents “borrow” seeds for common vegetables for use in their own gardens; then, if all goes well, they replenish the library’s store by returning seeds from their plants in the fall.
Last March, Ideas wrote about the phenomenon of seed libraries, which have become popular all over the country, and which aim to promote biodiversity and raise awareness about the dangers of monoculture farming. They’re a quaint, whimsical initiative, and just about the last thing you’d associate with terrorism.
But, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture sees things differently. On June 12 it sent the Simpson Seed Library a letter explaining that it was in violation of the Pennsylvania Seed Act of 2004. That law was intended to ensure the integrity of seeds sold by big companies—so that when you buy a packet of Spacemaster 80 cucumber seeds, you are in fact getting Spacemaster 80 cucumber seeds. Now, the law is being interpreted to cover seed libraries, too. State agriculture officials are apparently concerned that seed libraries could be an avenue for evil-doers to introduce invasive or poisonous plants and unwanted cross-pollinations into our food supply. They told employees of the Simpson library that in order to keep lending seed, they’d need to keep extensive records and test every batch of returned seed—burdensome conditions that effectively close the lending program.
The Sentinel newspaper of Cumberland County—which includes Mechanicsburg—quoted Barbara Cross, chair of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, explaining the department of agriculture’s decision to target the Simpson library: “Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario,” Cross said. “Protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge ... so you’ve got agri-tourism on one side and agri-terrorism on the other.”
It might sound absurd, but supporters of seed libraries are taking the situation seriously. “Needless to say, it’s created a certain amount of concern,” said Enid Boasberg, who helped start a seed library in Concord, Mass.
Soon after the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture letter, Rebecca Newburn of California, a founder of the seed library movement, sent an email to seed librarians around the country explaining the situation and providing talking points. “We want to be proactive in explaining what we do as seed libraries and why we provide a valuable service that needs to be preserved and encouraged,” she wrote. Newburn also noted that so far Simpson seems to be the only seed library to have received such a notice, and that the library will continue to give out seed—but will no longer accept returned seeds and will instead begin to organize informal seed swaps.
Boasberg also hopes the fallout will be local. “I’m not too surprised it was Pennsylvania that did this,” she said. “That’s where they’re fracking everything. Pennsylvania is kind of a mess.”