The importance of seeds: nonprofit creates a public seed library

By Jenn Walker

Ysidro Avila rummages through a tote bag and begins spreading packets of seeds out on the coffee table.

“One of my favorites is Salvia hispanica or Salvia columbariae, which is the chia seed,” he says. “I have a winter spinach, which is an organic giant version of spinach.”

The list of the bag’s contents continues. Blue hopi corn seeds, organic alfalfa seeds, heirloom red kidney seeds, heirloom oat and wheat seeds, jolokia pepper seeds, cauliflower, oregano, parsley, brussel sprouts, radishes, spaghetti squash, more than 100,000 tomato seeds… Just when it seems like he’s finished, he lists more.

These seeds are part of Avila’s massive contribution to a nonprofit organization in Sacramento, which is in the process of creating a free seed library open to the public. The goal is redistribution of seeds to the community, specifically seeds that have known and documented origins.

At the most basic level, Liberation Permaculture’s seed library provides the community an ongoing supply of seeds to use for growing their own food. A seed library has the capability to feed hundreds, even thousands, of people through a low- to no-cost process, Liberation Permaculture founder Rafael Aguilera says. This is especially significant for ‘food deserts’, where fresh food access is limited. Many of these seeds will bear plants with medicinal properties, too, he adds.

Here in Sacramento, providing the community seeds with known origins empowers locals to know their produce and share their knowledge communally.

“When someone has a relationship with their food, it should start with the seed and it should end with the seed,” he says. “We don’t want to be pessimists, we don’t want to be doomsday about it, but we really feel like if we’re going to be a resilient community, we need to define our own food system and participate in it.”

So Aguilera, along with the others in Liberation Permaculture, is encouraging the community to collect and plant organic, heirloom seeds. They consider any seeds that have been genetically unique for at least 50 years heirlooms. These seeds should also be able to openly pollinate, or reproduce on their own. The group is prepared to teach people how to garden.

“We’re going to teach people how to garden in a very hyperlocal way, whether it is in their own backyard, [on] their own balcony or [in] their own abandoned lot,” he says.

Another driving motive behind the seed library, he says, is to provide the community with a means to push back against crops derived from genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs.

According to him, the Central, San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys are in the midst of what he calls a “genetic warzone”.

“The valley, being a large region and having thousands and thousands of different crops growing, is literally a warzone of genetic pollution for heirloom and indigenous, open-pollinated, local seeds,” he says.

A number of experiments are occurring in these areas using genetically-modified seed stock, he says, in attempts to create a resilient tomato, seeds integrated with pharmaceutical drugs, or plants with the cold-tolerance of a cod, by crossing two species.

His concern is that these genetically-modified varieties can in turn cross-pollinate with other indigenous varieties, creating what he and others call “genetic pollution”. Even in remote regions of Mexico, genetic pollution has been traced by biologists like Ignacio Chapela, he points out.

“We think that the genetic diversity of our food is as important as the cultural diversity of our people,” Aguilera says.

Within the last seven years, controversy has increased in California regarding GMOs. In March 2004, Mendocino County was the first in the nation to pass a ban on cultivating genetically-modified plants or animals within its jurisdiction. Butte, Humboldt, Marin and San Luis Obispo counties followed suit by placing similar measures on 2004 ballots, though Marin was the only county where an anti-GMO initiative passed.

To date, there are no proven health risks from consumption of GMO crops; however, the scientific community has raised concerns that GMOs may be the cause of allergies and other aggravations in humans.

“If they want to create science in a lab, then go ahead and do that in a lab,” Ysidro says. “But don’t feed all of America with that.”

Stephen Kaffka is an agronomist who has been teaching in the plant sciences department at UC Davis for close to 20 years. He has somewhat of a different perspective on the issue, suggesting that heirloom varieties ought not to be pitted against GMO varieties.

Some heirloom varieties are contaminated with bacterial infections, he points out.

“There’s nothing wrong with growing heirloom varieties, [planting them] is a fun thing to do,” he says. “[But] what makes the genes in [heirloom varieties] less polluting than the genes in, let’s say commercial tomato varieties or corn?” he asked.

“We have an urban world that we live in, it’s not likely that everyone can grow their own food,” he adds.

For those who do want to grow their own food, however, the seed program offers the community a choice to grow heirloom, open-pollinated plants if they choose.

“Fresh backyard produce is incredible, nutrient-wise and everything else,” Avila says. “And you know where it’s coming from and you don’t have to worry about what you’re feeding your family or your kids, or [what you are] putting in your own body.”

Because this program is run on a volunteer-basis, recruiting people to contribute time, money and seeds is an ongoing process, Aguilera says. The organization has been collecting and categorizing seeds since last spring.

So far more than 100 people have participated, either by taking or contributing seeds.

Avila is one of those contributors. He caught wind of Liberation Permaculture’s efforts through some friends, and decided he wanted to help. He has purchased more than 10 pounds of heirloom seeds to contribute to the library. As an indigenous food enthusiast, he is just that passionate about the issue, he says.

“It really dawned on me how far and how detached we really are as a society from our food in the grand scale of things,” he says. “We get so caught up in our everyday lives [that] we don’t question our food or where it comes from.”

Ideally, he says he would love to create a similar model in Stockton, where he is originally from, and establish a seed library network linked between Sacramento, Stockton, the East Bay and surrounding areas.

On Feb. 7, the Liberation Permaculture is organizing an introductory workshop to sustainable gardening. At this time the seeds will be disbursed from the seed lending library.

“Obviously we won’t be charging any late penalty fees,” Aguilera says with a laugh. Instead, the only expectation of anyone who takes seeds is that they save any seeds they can collect from successful harvests and replenish the library’s stock.

The organization is exploring the possibility of a partnership with the city’s public libraries on this project. If the partnership succeeds, Aguilera hopes to spread seed lending libraries to all of the public libraries in the city, beginning with those located in food deserts.

“Giving people access to that knowledge, basically, that’s stored in the seed itself, its genetic knowledge, is powerful,” Aguilera says. “Seeds are our ancestors and they are what our future depends on.”

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