According to a recent story at Shareable by Kelly McCartney and Sarah Baird (“Pennsylvania Seed Library Investigated by Department of Agriculture,” August 7), the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is investigating an heirloom seed library as a possible vector of attack by “agricultural terrorists.”
Libraries for sharing traditional and heirloom seed varieties are a growing phenomenon nationwide, intended as a way to preserve biodiversity and the collective heritage of many millions of hours of selective breeding against the lockdown a handful of giant agribusiness corporations has imposed on our entire food chain.
A public library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania celebrated Earth Day this year by launching its own seed library project. This didn’t sit well with the state Ag Department, which is investigating the seed library, citing possible violations of the Seed Act of 2004. The department’s duties, under the terms of the Act, include “keeping mislabeled seeds, invasive plant species, cross-pollinated varietals, and poisonous plants out of the state.” Pursuant to that authority, the department told the library, “all seeds had to be tested for purity and germination rates.” A Cumberland County commissioner explained, presumably with a straight face: “Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario. Protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge …”
According to the librarian in charge of the seed program, the library can meet the state’s demands for demonstrating the purity and germination rates of its seeds with a few simple steps: “We can only have current-year seeds … and they have to be store-purchased because those seeds have gone through purity and germination rate testing. People can’t donate their own seeds because we can’t test them as required by the Seed Act. Also, when people contribute, they usually just bring a handful of seeds. The purity and germination rate tests take several hundred seeds, so we don’t even have enough to test.”
So heirloom seed libraries are just fine as long as the seeds are obtained through commercial distributors and no seeds from previous years are involved. Hmmm … If I didn’t know better, I’d think the state regulations were custom tailored to criminalize circumventing corporate agribusiness’s monopoly on the entire food chain. Purely coincidental, I’m sure.
It’s also odd what doesn’t count as one of the forms of “agricultural terrorism” the Seed Act is supposed to protect us against. For all its concerns about mislabeled seeds and cross-pollinated varietals, the Pennsylvania State Agriculture Department is remarkably unconcerned with things like, say, farmers having their heirloom crops contaminated by pollen from Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds (including the so-called “terminator gene,” designed to produce sterile offspring so farmers can’t save seed).
Worse yet, it’s unconcerned with Monstanto’s further terroristic practices, like sending out Pinkerton goons (yeah, those Pinkertons — the armed mercenaries who used to fight pitched battles against striking workers) to harass farmers whose crops are contaminated for “stealing” Monsanto’s patented genetic material. That’s like suing someone you shot for stealing your bullets. Monsanto also threatens and strong arms grocers who label milk with and without recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), on the grounds that free commercial speech is “product disparagement.”
Pennsylvania’s state government carries out actions of its own that some would regard as terroristic, like sending out (at the behalf of chain grocers) agents to set up sting and entrapment operations to shut down Amish farmers’ membership-based food buying clubs, and sending SWAT teams to terrorize sellers of raw milk.
Since their beginnings, the USDA and state departments of agriculture have heavily subsidized, and acted as the enforcement arm of, the corporate agribusiness crime syndicate, terrorizing people who presume to feed themselves without paying tribute to their corporate crime lords. If, as the late Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler said, the US Marines were the overseas strong arm operation for the big US banks, then the USDA and Pennsylvania DA are strongarm operations for Monsanto, Cargill and ADM.
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.