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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: The Seeds We Sow

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters, formerly known as Sustainable Saturday, focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.
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Seed exchange: what’s old is new again

Nyack is a gardening place: sunny native-plant beds, old-school front-yard tomatoes, the Nyack Please Pick Project, and a 60-member, 1/5-acre community garden that reaches 100% occupancy well before seed time.

One avid South Nyack flower gardener, Laurie Needell, is also a teen-room information specialist at The Nyack Library. Although she had worked on library seed-exchange projects in school, the spark for a Nyack program was lit in 2015 by librarians Belinda Cash and Claudia Uccellani, whose friend, Jennifer Hausler, of  The Garden Conservancy, had been talking it up. “I was all over it,” said Needell, who saw her vocation and avocation converge before her eyes.

Needell and her garden-loving library colleagues did their research, made their proposal, enlisted Hausler as a volunteer partner, and won approval for a Nyack Seed Exchange, which debuted at The Nyack Library one year ago. The grand opening featured a “seed slam,” with special guest Joan Gussow, and this year’s exchange kicks off with a screening of the award-winning documentary Seed: the Untold Story (see box).

“Seed exchange has been going on since people have been growing things. It was pretty much standard practice that you’d share or swap seeds with your neighbors,” said Needell. “Modern seed banks and exchanges are an elaboration of that idea.”  Needell believes that it’s largely a response to the rise in large corporate farming, and crop monocultures: planting just one crop over an extensive area. “This created a pushback, with some people saying ‘No,’ and investing in small farming, organics and maintaining seed diversity.”Nyack Seed Exchange

The Nyack Library Seed Exchange

You can check seeds out from the Nyack Exchange, but you won’t get any overdue notices. Seed contributions—saved or store-bought—are voluntary, as is a little something in the donation jar to defray the program’s costs. Every Saturday from 10a to 2p, March through September, volunteers man tables at the library where patrons can talk garden shop and pick up a variety of flower and vegetable seeds, donated by commercial seed companies (who take the non-genetically-modified “Safe Seed” pledge) or by local gardeners. The goal? The Garden Conservancy’s Jennifer Hausler knows exactly where this effort is going: “More participation from a community of seed stewards who are actively fostering their favorite varieties and making sure the well-adapted, successful ones continue to make their way to the exchange where they can be shared.

Nyack Seed Exchange

Nyack Seed Exchange packet of bush beans. Photo: Susan Hellauer

Seed savers follow protocols available on the seed exchange website, and are encouraged to start with “easy” plants, like tomatoes, peas, beans and lettuce. Advanced gardeners can move on to more challenging plants, which require isolation and other techniques in order to avoid cross-pollination and unintended “oops” hybrids.

“We got videos and a lot of help from Richmond Grows” (in Richmond, California), which pioneered organized community seed exchange,” said Needell, who is happy to note that the Nyack Seed Exchange is a hit with local gardeners. “This year, we’ve started off busier than last year,” she said. “Just before opening day I got a lot of seeds, some cash and plenty of support,” Needell told me. “Even now, I go to work and almost every day there’s a little present for the seed exchange waiting for me.”

The Nyack Seed Exchange now has a Facebook group, where Needell hopes that people can help the project and each other by sharing their gardening stories.

Roundup-ready: the biodiversity battle

Trading natural, non-GM seeds in Nyack may not change the world, but it can raise awareness among mindful gardeners of the high-stakes seed battles being fought on the world’s farms. In the mid 1990s, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, like Monsanto (US), Bayer (Germany) and Syngenta (Switzerland), introduced genetically-modified crop seeds. They are sold in combination with chemical pesticides, most notably Monsanto’s weed killer glyphosate (introduced in 1974 and found as Round-up in many suburban garden sheds). These modified seeds produce plants that can withstand glyphosate or another proprietary pesticide, which can thus be liberally applied to control weeds without harming the crop plants.

purple dragon carrots

Purple dragon carrots–found at the seed exchange, not the supermarket. Photo courtesy

Can glyphosate make people sick? The EPA considers it “low in toxicity” when used as directed, but some activists and scientists don’t agree. A 2009 study found that one of the pesticide’s supposedly “inert” components can harm human cells, especially in developing fetuses. Just this past week, a judge’s ruling allowed California—the biggest agricultural state—to label glyphosate as a possible human carcinogen, based on data from the respected French International Agency for Research on Cancer. One day later, an EU watchdog group, the European Chemical Agency (EchA) said that glyphosate was not human carcinogen. Also this week—a busy one for Monsanto and glyphosate—an EPA official stands accused of helping Monsanto kill a cancer study, as revealed in court documents made public by a federal judge in San Francisco.

Aside from soaking corn for cattle feed and tortilla chips with questionable chemicals, it’s Big Ag’s reliance on crop monoculture and resulting loss of biodiversity that may pose the most alarming long term risk to the world’s food security. Using the same pesticide, year after year, throws evolution into high gear, with “superweeds” and insects developing resistance as quickly as corporate chemists can tweak formulas. Crop monocultures, with thousands of acres of nothing but soybeans or corn or cotton in every direction, create near-perfect conditions for resistant pests and blights to reproduce and flourish.

From Big Ag to Goliath Ag: the Monsanto Merger

Laurie Needell boosts the Nyack Seed Exchange at the Nyack Farmers Market. Photo: Susan Hellauer

Monsanto and a few other agrichemical companies now control about 60% of the world’s crop seeds. And that group is about to get smaller, with more agricultural power concentrated in fewer hands. In a $66 billion deal last September, Monsanto agreed to sell itself to its larger rival, German pharmaceutical giant Bayer. The merger still faces antitrust scrutiny here and abroad, but a business-friendly Trump Administration may do what it can to ease the way.

“Warren Buffet has just bought a whole lot of Monsanto stock, which makes you think that this merger is likely to succeed,” said The Nyack Library’s Laurie Needell. “When that happens, Bayer-Monsanto alone will control about 30% of the world’s seed, and that’s just two—soon one—of the world’s big players.”

Goji berry seed

Goji berry seed. Illustration: Susan Foster, US Dept. of Agriculture via Wikimedia Commons

Farmers can expect Bayer-Monsanto to protect its patented, proprietary seed with a ready legal  arsenal. Monsanto has regularly and successfully sued farmers for “seed saving.” In a number of years-long court battles, judgments have consistently come down on Monsanto’s side, all the way to the Supreme Court.

But in some places, citizen pushback is growing. After doctors observed a spike in birth defects, Hawaiian activists began fighting back hard against Monsanto and other agrichemical companies, who use pesticide-soaked fields on Kauai and other Hawaiian Islands to develop their GM corn. Political barriers to change are formidable, however, with the chemical companies and their GM crop business tightly woven into the Hawaii’s economy and government.

The Doomsday Vault: A post-apocalyptic seed exchange

Seed: The Untold Story

The Nyack Seed Exchange kicks off its season with a screening of the 2016 documentary Seed: The Untold Story on Thursday March 30, 7p, at The Nyack Library, with an appearance by Ken Greene of Hudson Valley Seed Company and Seedshed.
The multi-award-winning film highlights the threat to biodiversity from Big Ag’s global seed monopoly. The event is a collaboration among The Nyack Library, Keep Rockland Beautiful and The Garden Conservancy.
Call the library 845 358 3370 x 214 to register or visit

Over the last century, it’s estimated that the earth has lost 93% of its seed varieties. Community seed exchanges, like Nyack’s, are a small-scale reflection of big-time anxiety about that number among sustainable agriculture advocates. They fear the end of food-plant biodiversity and, with it, the specter of widespread famine. And that’s not just a dystopian movie plot. When a blight attacked mid-19th-century Ireland’s potato monoculture, there were no fallback crops, and the result was The Great Famine, with a million dead and a million fled.

Now, a rational reaction to that anxiety has been created in Norway’s arctic archipelago. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was established in 2008 as a repository for millions of genetically pure seeds from around the world. The US is a contributor to this safekeeping project, and has this week become the largest single member of a United Nations seed-sharing treaty (ratified in the last weeks of the Obama Administration) which uses this arctic storage site.

Some call Svalbard the “Doomsday Vault”—humanity’s agricultural salvation in a post-apocalyptic world. Its remote location and natural refrigeration would likely preserve its precious contents even after a nuclear cataclysm. But its main aim is to preserve biodiversity and provide the source material for sustainable crops in the face of climate change and the galloping profit-driven industrial food monoculture. It’s the ultimate seed exchange that the world may not know it needs—just yet.

Learn more:

Nyack Seed Exchange needs volunteers to man (or woman) the Seed Exchange table at The Nyack Library on Saturdays from 10a – 2p.
Email Laurie Needell for more information.

The Nyack Seed Exchange at The Nyack Library

Richmond Grows

Seed: The Untold Story (film website)

The Safe Seed Pledge

The Open Source Seed Alliance

Seedsavers Exchange

Email Earth Mattersenvelope

Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Green Meadow Waldorf School, Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.
Read Earth Matters every Saturday on Nyack News And Views, or sign up for the Earth Matters mailing list.

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