The Toronto Seed Library (TSL) grew out of Occupy Gardens Toronto, part of the International Occupy Movement, and aligns itself with the ethos of the movement, in particular, in making a stand against the corporatisation of the food system. The library was initiated in November 2012 by students from the University of Toronto and York University, and has since grown in to a network of nearly 30 branches.
We consider the seed library part of the international movement for Seed Freedom that Dr Vandana Shiva calls for in explicit direct resistance to capitalism and the corporatisation of the seed system and the food system. We’re really strong on seed saving as a political act in itself even if you don’t recognise it explicitly as that.
Kate Berger, founding member, TSL
How it works
Unlike other seed libraries, which tend to operate through the public library system, TSL has partnered with community centres, churches and university libraries, to build an independent network of organisations. The strength of the network lies in its diversity; each of the branches serve a different demographic and connects a different group of people to the project; from students at OISE library to Bangladeshi women at the Christian Resource Centre. Kate Berger and Brendan Berhmann, the lead ‘cultivators’ of the network, do not impose any rules on their partner-branches; they want each branch to be independent and manage the library in a way that suits them. As a result, the experience of visiting each branch can be quite varied, from inspecting the contents of an imposing card cabinet at the OISE library to rifling through a small basket of seeds at Harvest Noon Café at the University of Toronto. Far from presenting a problem, this is one of the network’s strengths. By working with such a range of organisations, they ensure their seeds are accessible to the widest possible range of communities. This has become one of the defining characteristics of the project and is well suited to a city as diverse as Toronto.
TSL is unique amongst anything that decides to call itself a seed library. This is local but our local is so big. You can’t have a community seed bank in Toronto. There are many hundreds of communities in Toronto so, as much as we can, what we do matches the scale of our city. The really decentralised open model is what makes us special.
Alongside coordinating the branches, TSL also run a busy programme of educational activities. They hold workshops throughout the year and run stalls at various community events to help spread the word. They take part in a range of events, from environmental conferences to political gatherings, to align themselves with grassroots resistance, and to interact with different kinds of people. Over the past few years their primary focus has been on raising awareness, but now they focussing more on teaching seed saving skills. Brendan Behrmann is the Chief Librarian and leads a lot of the workshops. He says that seed saving knowledge amongst people in the city is generally low, and he spends a lot of time encouraging people to ‘just try it’. He has run dozens of introductory classes but recognises that this is not enough to give someone the skills they need to feel confident. In response to this, he developed a Seed School curriculum, which includes 6 sessions, each based on a different plant family. The Seed School is running for the first time in Autumn 2015, and TSL are currently looking for funding to develop it further in the future.
Selection of seeds at TSL stall including donations from seed companies and backyard gardeners
Successes and challenges
Whilst the lack of seed saving skills can be a challenge, it is also an opportunity. TSL have observed the number of seeds donated to their programme rise significantly over the past 3 years, suggesting that not only are more seed savers finding out about their project, but also more people are giving it a go. Brendan recognises the potential in an urban setting where the local population embodies so many different cultural traditions. Many people immigrate to Toronto from rural settings, where seed saving is more common, and as a result, may be familiar with traditional methods of saving, processing or storing seeds. Brendan would like to connect with these people and learn from their methods, and pass them on to others as well.
We’re attempting to revive the whole culture and knowledge around seed saving as well incorporating as much traditional knowledge as we can from all over the world. People come to Toronto with traditional knowledge from all their various cultures and we try to do a lot of inter-cultural exchange so we’re learning and hopefully teaching as well.
Brendan Behrmann, Chief Librarian, TSL
The future direction of TSL is slightly uncertain at the moment as the group wait to hear back on a large grant application to support their education work. If successful, the grant would pay the organisers a salary for the first time; up to this point, they have been doing nearly all of the work as volunteers. It’s not sustainable to continue running the project at the same level on a voluntary basis (Kate and Brendan have been working full-time hours for no pay) so let’s hope the funder recognises the value of all their hard work. It has taken three years to build awareness and establish good community connections and now they are in the perfect position to develop a more formal education programme and take their work to the next level.