Our food system is broken and needs to be fixed, many say. But it isn’t broken. In fact, I think it’s working exactly how it was intended. The current food system, and the legal rules that govern it, have been built by and for only the largest producers, retailers, and manufacturers. The bigger the better, the logic goes, which is why our food economy is dominated by large, increasingly consolidated, vertically integrated corporations.
An especially consolidated sector of our food system is the seed economy; for example, just six companies control 63 percent of the commercial seed market. Because most of our food starts off as seed, instead of trying to fix a system that isn’t intended to work for the vast majority of people, animals, or the planet, we should try to create our own.
If we want more equitable access to healthy, affordable food grown locally by small farmers who steward natural resources responsibly, this is exactly what we need to do. The task is tall, but so achievable, especially if we all commit to working together in the right direction. Here are three simple steps we can take to reintroduce democracy back into our seed system and into our neighborhoods.
If you haven’t been to your local library recently, you might be surprised to find a seed library there. Across the United States, there are about 400 of these community-based seed sharing initiatives, which allow neighbors to share seeds with one another. It basically works like this: You borrow seeds, grow the plant, harvest almost all of the fruit (which you eat!), and save and return some of the seeds back to the library, where others will repeat the process. Seed librarian extraordinaire Rebecca Newburn, cofounder of Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, says it like this: “It’s like checking out a book, except that you’ve added a chapter when you return it.”
Seed libraries make seeds freely available to its members or the public, relying on reciprocity and a sense of interdependence to ensure that its stock is continually replenished. By treating seeds as a common resource to be stewarded for the public benefit, libraries create what is called the seed commons. The commons reframes our role in relationship to seeds as that of caretakers instead of owners. While owners only have a responsibility to themselves, caretakers have a responsibility to the seeds and to the community that placed them under their care. By bringing seeds into the commons, we have the power to democratize access to, and control over, one of our basic necessities: food.
Seed saving is nothing new. If anything, it’s likely one of the oldest continuous human traditions, going back some 10,000 years. Just in the last century or so, we as a society have lost—and been removed from—our connection to seed. In this time, seeds have been transformed from a common resource into a commodity, bought and sold and owned by fewer and fewer companies.
But saving seed is not necessarily simple. That’s why libraries exist as educational resources to help us rediscover the art and skill involved with it. Re-skilling ourselves means that we will be able to provide healthy foods to ourselves and our families, build community resilience in the face of climate change, and rediscover the cultural history and significance attached to the seeds we save.
In practice, it also means growing food for ourselves and our communities. The more food we grow ourselves, the less we rely on a global food system that prioritizes profit over environmental, human, or animal welfare. It also means that we are buying and selling food locally, circulating our dollars in our communities, and generating local wealth. Seed saving is at once an act of resistance and renewal.
The success of our new food system relies equally on our independence from the current system as it does on our interdependence on each other. What that simply means is that we should share more and share more equitably. We should share both the risk and the reward, the profits and the losses, the efforts and the outcomes. By sharing, we also begin to take part in an alternative economy, one not based on transacting money for goods or services, but on relationships, gift giving, and mutual aid. At a time when dollars in our economy are increasingly scarce and consolidated in the hands of the wealthy few, sharing gives us the means to provide for ourselves.
In particular, sharing seeds is an easy place to start, because seeds by their nature almost beg to be shared. One tomato plant might produce upwards of 500 seeds, which, in theory, could be planted in 500 different gardens the next season. Now, imagine that 100 households grow five crops each to share their seeds. It’s not difficult to picture the multiplying effect community-based seed sharing could have on the total amount of local food production!
Yet no good deed goes unpunished. Right now, seed libraries across the country are struggling to protect their ability to facilitate local sharing. In partnership with others, Sustainable Economies Law Center, where I work, has been leading a campaign to raise public awareness of this struggle and to advocate on behalf of seed sharing organizations. You can learn more about it at our Save Seed Sharing website.
Creating a true bottom-up democracy means that we need to envision democracy not just in our government but in all aspects of our lives. Civic engagement is not just about choosing who to vote for—it’s also about choosing how and where to spend a dollar. Seed libraries offer us an opportunity to become more civically engaged by reintroducing democracy into the food economy, reclaiming the seed commons, and empowering communities to begin creating their own local food systems.