Urban ‘seed librarians’ fight for biodiversity as GMOs tighten their grip on agriculture

By Bliss Bowen

1. Seed Library of Los Angeles Chair Eleuterio Navarro holds fresh-picked Mayan berries from The Learning Garden; 2. Seed Library founder David King, who passed the reigns to Navarro last year; 3. Hundreds of heirloom seed varieties are stored under refrigeration in envelopes and boxes; 4. A purple seed pod ripens in the garden; 5. A bee pollinates a flowering bok choy near the entrance of The Learning Garden; 6. Navarro has resisted harvesting his prized red cauliflower so that its seeds can mature for the library’s collection; 7. Navarro reaches to check on a patch of leafy vegetables
Photos by Maria Martin

A revolution in nutrition is gathering momentum, locally and across the globe. Its weapon is seeds, and the Seed Library of Los Angeles — headquartered at The Learning Garden on the campus of Venice High School — is doing its part to arm the citizenry.

As its name implies, a seed library is a place where members of the community can check out seeds, as opposed to books. The hope is that eventually these borrowers will return with seeds harvested from their own gardens, thereby expanding its collection of local living seeds and the larger “seed revolution.”

“We’re trying to create a depository that’s as diverse as possible,” explains SLOLA Chair Eleuterio Navarro, a Santa Monica resident. “We have two main sections in our library. One is cool crop seeds — things that tend to grow best in winter, like from August through March, which tend to be all your root crops, all your greens. Then we have over 350 varieties of crops just for our warm season — things that can grow in summer, late spring, early fall: peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers. We’re constantly asking people, ‘If you have something you want to put in the library, bring it in.’”

The seed revolution has grown over the past decade, as news headlines and documentaries like Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.” and Jeremy Seifert’s “GMO OMG” have roused public alarm over genetically modified produce, the extinction of many heirloom seed varieties, and efforts by litigious Big Ag companies to exert greater control over the food supply chain. Monsanto’s practice of seed patenting has been a particular source of heated controversy, reportedly becoming a contributing factor in at least some percentage of farmer bankruptcies and suicides here and abroad.

Organic farming, meanwhile, has gradually expanded its market share; according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “consumer demand for organically produced goods continues to show double-digit growth.” At the same time, consumers as well as regional seed companies have pushed back against the corporate monopolization of seed production.

Against that backdrop, the Seed Library of Los Angeles’ mission is “to facilitate the growth of open-pollinated seeds among residents of the Los Angeles Basin. An outgrowth of The Learning Garden, it was founded in December 2010 by author and educator David King, who guided the nonprofit organization until last year, when Navarro, an alumnus of Venice High School and Santa Monica College, was elected to his four-year term as chair.

A computer network engineer by training, Navarro’s passion for gardening took root in childhood: He grew up on a farm in Jalisco, Mexico, until age 7, when his family relocated to the Westside. Once here, his father worked as a landscaper for large properties in tony neighborhoods like Bel Air, where he would ask permission to grow organic produce in exchange for regularly leaving baskets with the homeowners.

“He was doing CSA [community supported agriculture] veggie boxes 30, 40 years ago,” Navarro recalls. Seeing his father create a “community-like environment” set a subconscious example that now informs Navarro’s work with SLOLA as well as the University of California Cooperative Master Gardener program, which trains people in sustainable gardening practices.

That spirit of community building is at the heart of SLOLA meetings, says Krystal Rains, who recently spoke at the Venice branch about sowing and saving native seeds. Depending on the branch, she says, SLOLA meetings offer Q&A sessions, presentations, “free lessons in gardening and horticulture and botany.” And, of course, seeds.

Fighting Extinction

SLOLA’s seed catalogue lists numerous fruits and vegetables along with herbs, grains and sunflowers. Twenty-six strains of lettuce range from familiar types like Brune d’Hiver to lesser-knowns such as Amish Deer Tongue and heirloom Butterhead Kagraner seeds. There are more than three dozen warm season and six cold season bean varieties, almost as many kinds of squash (not including nine kinds of pumpkin), and more than 90 varieties of tomato. Grain options include barley, farro, oats, quinoa, rice, sesame, wheat, and eight varieties of amaranth. Navarro says he was recently gifted with eight ounces
of black amaranth seeds, which he plans to try growing at The Learning Garden this year.

Navarro’s current prize is a rare red cauliflower maturing in the garden. There are also several varieties of bok choy and even “Inca berries” (a.k.a. Peruvian groundcherries or Cape gooseberries), which produce pods that look like tomatillos but contain round, sweet, bright orange fruit.

Building the library is “a very exciting accomplishment” for the students and seed savers who have contributed from across L.A. County, Navarro says. He adds that they’re getting ready to add at least 35 more crops to their database, and hope to amass more than 500 seed varieties.

“Our overall goal is to create a community of gardeners that will grow crops that are not commonplace — things that, unless we continue to grow them, will become extinct,” says Navarro. “Open-pollinated heirloom variety seeds have been around for thousands of years. Human beings started cultivating plants about 10,000 years ago. We’ve mastered these crops over these last centuries. But over the last 50 years, things have changed, with the rise of agro-chemical companies and large corporations that want to patent seeds.

“How do you patent a seed? Over the years a lot of large seed companies purchased smaller seed companies, and now they don’t carry those same seeds anymore, so those crops started to go extinct. Because seeds are alive. For example, a lettuce seed is only good for about a year or two. Things like squash have a 10-year life span, tomatoes maybe a little more. We want to ensure the diversity of crops.

“That way, one day if a blight or disease or fungus that affects our crops comes down the road, there’s enough diversity in our crop system that it will survive. Look at what happened to the Irish,” he adds, referencing the mid-19th-century Irish Potato Famine, caused by monoculture farming and lack of diversity in spud varieties planted.


Creative Solutions

SLOLA branches recently opened in Altadena and Woodland Hills, and Navarro grows more animated when discussing plans for new branches on track to open in Watts and Long Beach over the next few months. He’s hopeful intersections may arise where the Seed Library community can assist the homeless population.

So far, schools and libraries are the primary host locations for the volunteer-run meetings, which vary in character from place to place. Members at Woodland Hills meetings, for example, are more interested in produce exchanges and roundtable discussions.

Venice meetings, which convene the third Saturday of each month, host more speakers; topics range from local experts addressing heavyweight issues like climate change’s effects on local gardens to members sharing problem-solving tips. For instance, one apartment dweller talked about how she created sufficient root space to grow tomatoes by knotting old jeans, filling them with soil, and hanging the denim containers off
her balcony.

“I always tell people you don’t have to grow all your food,” Navarro says. “You can participate in this food revolution, whatever you want to call it, by just growing a couple herbs on your balcony or getting creative like this lady did. I’m always looking for folks who are doing something different and unique in their backyards, to just grow our community.”

Rains, a Seed Library veteran descended from farmers, describes a convivial social environment at the San Fernando Valley chapter, where she serves on the Steering Committee. She’s been a member since 2013.

“When I learned what the Seed Library really was, I was like, ‘Here’s my $10. I support this kind of organization whether I plant them or check them out or whatever.’ The whole thing is a $10 lifetime membership, and I’ve learned an amazing amount of information over the years.”

“As we get older there needs to be someone that takes over,” Navarro says, mindful that expansion helps re-energize the membership. “Twenty, 30 years down the line when I’m gone, we want to make sure that the act of seed saving, the act of educating people about where food comes from and the connection between food and the culture, is there.

“Every branch is slowly taking on their own identity, doing things they want to do within their own community. They’re all different. I let them be. I told them: This is your branch, your membership. We’re here to support what you want to do.”


The Seed Library of Los Angeles
hosts its next meeting from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 17) in The
Learning Garden at Venice High School, 13000 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista. Guest speaker Su Falcon, editor and publisher of The Dirt on Organic Gardening magazine, discusses raising chickens. Membership not required
for attendance. Visit slola.org for
more information.