When entering Gleeson Library, you may notice the small garden to the left of the entrance, vibrant and lush with a variety of different plants and flowers. Arugula, marigolds, and calendula plants are growing there this spring season under the care and collaboration of urban agriculture students and the USF seed library, a student effort that’s tucked away on the first floor of Gleeson behind Thacher Gallery.
The seed library is an ongoing project that was established in 2014 by librarians Debbie Benrubi, Carol Spector, and David Silver, an associate professor and director of USF’s environmental studies program. The seeds all come in small packets, labeled with information about their common name, where they originated from, and how easy or hard it is to grow and harvest the seeds.
Along with perfectly alphabetized seeds that are tucked away in drawers, the library houses zines related to different environmental issues that are up for grabs. The library also provides a selection of agricultural texts and academic resources, all available to check out or to read by a library window, complete with nursery pots sitting pretty on the windowsill.
This is a free resource for any USF community member to use and contribute to. Students are encouraged to take a packet of seeds from the selection, plant them, and harvest the new seeds to be donated back to the library’s collection. The library’s seeds are sourced from various places, such as Truelove Seeds, a farm-based seed company located in Philadelphia; Johnny’s seeds, a Maine-based company dedicated to distributing organic seeds to families and small-scale farms; and from the USF community garden.
The seed library’s goal is to promote knowledge of where our food comes from, how it’s grown, and how to grow it ourselves. “It’s an act of revolutionary love for the community,” said Maya Visconte, a second-year environmental studies major who runs the seed library. “Life should not be privatized in that sort of way.” She explained that the accessibility to free, organic seeds is crucial to promoting seed sovereignty — a farmer’s right to breed and exchange open source seeds that are not patented, genetically modified, owned, or controlled by emerging seed giants.
Seed sovereignty is an environmental issue that, despite its importance, is not usually tied into the overarching climate effort. As stated in “Sowing Seeds: Seed Sovereignty,” one of the zines that Visconte created for the library, major companies with roots in war chemicals patent and modify seeds, feeding into the dominant industrial agricultural system. This has resulted in a 75% decrease in seed varieties since the beginning of the 20th century, which is an issue since all different types of seeds are needed to maintain biodiversity and sustain food systems.
The largest seed company in the world is Monsanto, a U.S.-based company which accounts for 23% of the global proprietary seed market. They are one of the nine companies that manufactured Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, which killed over 200,000 Vietnamese citizens and left 2 million more suffering from illnesses related to its exposure.
Almost all of the four major companies that run the seed industry have the same narrative. They’ve taken their manufacturing infrastructure from involvement with past wars, and have redirected it to dominating the seed market by privatizing their seeds and knowledge. This monopoly prevents smaller-scale farmers from maintaining their craft and livelihood, as seeds from these companies come at a higher premium, making them inaccessible to many of these farmers due to their high cost.
Being one of the few seed libraries in all of San Francisco, the seed library’s existence relies on community members interacting with and using the resources it provides. According to Spector, the reason seed libraries exist is to bridge the gap between the community and the greater climate effort, so that more people can get involved in combating climate issues. “It’s a baby step in approaching and addressing these issues, but it’s still a step towards understanding them,” Spector said.
With Earth Day around the corner, it’s an appropriate time to consider climate issues — such as seed endangerment — as problems that we could help solve. A great way to start is by getting into the seed exchange here on campus. Visit the library and take a packet of seeds, fill out a borrower’s log, and get to growing! Once your plant has regenerated another set of seeds, donate them back to the library.
PHOTOS BY INÉS VENTURA/SF FOGHORN