Taking a cue from the software industry, scientists, farmers and sustainable food advocates have released what they’re calling the first open source seeds.
The Open Source Seed Initiative
(OSSI) is centered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and its stated goal is “to keep [its] new seeds free for all people to grow, breed and share for perpetuity, with the goal of protecting the plants from patents and other restrictions down the line.”
In other words, breeders and farmers can do what they like with the seeds, but they can’t turn the results into a proprietary product.
Last week, the group released 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains.
“We’re letting people know diversity is threatened,” said Jack Kloppenburg, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology.
He added that through the widespread use of seed patents, the world is facing a “freezing of a genetic landscape” for seeds. Until relatively recently, plant breeders regularly shared their plants and seeds openly and through this sharing, developed better breeds.
Andy LaVigne, the president of the American Seed Trade Association
, which promotes the “research, development and movement of quality seed to meet the world's demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel,” didn’t agree with Kloppenburg’s assessment.
“I don’t think there’s any lockdown on any seed or diversity,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of competition.”
With regard to diversity, LaVigne said all you have to do is look at your dinner plate.
“Look at the colors on the plate when you eat at a restaurant,” he said. “I don’t remember that growing up.”
LaVigne did say that many seed traits such as pesticide resistance and resistance to common diseases are “dominated by the companies.”
Monsanto, along with other seed giants Sygenta and Dupont own a whopping 53 percent of the worldwide seed market, according a Center for Food Safety report
Certain seeds, notably corn, soybeans and a handful of other large crops, contain so-called intellectual property in their specific traits. Farmers aren’t allowed to save these seeds for the next year’s crops. In effect, they’re leasing the seeds, said Kloppenburg.
“Genetically, we’re putting all of our eggs in one basket,” said Kloppenburg, adding that the giant seed companies mostly work with a “narrow range of crops and techniques, narrow varieties and narrow traits,” such as pesticide resistance.
Kloppenburg said that huge seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont are starting to use the same methods they used for big crop plants like corn and soybeans on vegetables, fruit and small grain seeds.
This, he said, could result in there being no valuable plant germplasm, the genetic information within seeds, available for public use.
“These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage, and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future,” said Irwin Goldman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison horticulture professor and plant breeder in a statement
Many vegetable seeds sold on the market are hybrids, meaning that with repeated use, they will lose certain traits. Because of this they usually need no patent.
OSSI members first tried to develop a licensing system for the open source seeds but opted instead for a simplified approach, the Open Source Seed Pledge, which will printed on every packet of seeds.
"It's almost like a haiku," says Goldman. "It basically says these seeds are free to use in any way you want. They can't be legally protected. Enjoy them."
Like shrink-wrapped software, when someone opens a pack of open source seeds, they are agreeing to keep the seeds and any bred offspring of the seeds in the public domain.
"It creates a parallel system, a new space where breeders and farmers can share seeds," says Kloppenburg. "And, because it applies to derivatives, it makes for an expanding pool of germplasm that any plant breeder can freely use."
Goldman said open source seeds can provide economic opportunities for breeders.
"You can sell these open source seeds just like you'd sell any other seeds,” he said. “The difference is that the recipients can actually do stuff with them, which is kind of fun."
While the OSSI remains a tiny initiative compared to a company like Monsanto, the members hope they will at least raise awareness
"Who knows what will happen, but even if the pledge does nothing more than help raise awareness about what's going on with seeds, that's progress," said Goldman.
For its part, Monsanto, the world’s largest seller of seeds, said it wished the OSSI luck.
“We believe that everyone growing vegetables – from home gardeners to farmers large and small, organic, conventional or using genetically modified seeds – have a choice when it comes to their seed purchase, said Monsanto spokesperson Carly Scaduto in an emailed statement. “We believe this University of Wisconsin project enables even more choices in the vegetable seed marketplace. We wish the University of Wisconsin project all the best in this new endeavor.”
For now, it remains to be seen if open source seeds have any economic viability, but the OSSI organizers would be satisfied if the movement provides an alternative to large companies selling patented seeds. In a world facing the daunting challenges of climate change, Kloppenburg said diversity will be key in feeding the planet.
“It’s inappropriate and foolish to allow the marketers and executives in five [seed] companies to decide how the world is going to eat,” he said. “Let the genes flow and tap into the creativity all around the world.”