Open Source Seeds
Keeping Seeds in the Public Domain
Even as local food movements bloom like flowers across North America, their initiatives for community control over food face a nearly invisible threat from multinational seed patent holders like Monsanto and DuPont—the loss of public domain seed. In response to this threat, a group of concerned scientists, plant breeders and seed growers have launched a new model, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), to keep seeds as a common resource for humanity.
Since agriculture began, farmers have saved their seed for the following year. Over the last 10,000 years they improved food crops by selecting the seeds from the healthiest and most productive plants. These seeds were the shared common property of the farming communities that grew them and the basis of their survival and prosperity.
During the 19th century, governments in North America searched the world for new crop varieties to release into the public domain and thereby strengthen their agriculture. This tradition continued in the 20th century as almost all major new crop varieties were created and developed by publicly funded agricultural institutions. The private sector consisted of numerous small seed companies that acquired and repackaged seeds developed in the public domain.
Hybrids, Patents and a Changed Agriculture
This template changed in the 1930s with the development of hybrid seeds, the first major form of proprietary seed production. In some plant species such as corn, inbreeding allows the concentration of favourable genetic characteristics, although generally at a cost of plant vigour. When two inbred lines with desirable characteristics are crossed, the favourable characteristics show up in the first generation along with increased general vigour. These qualities disappear in succeeding generations. If you want to continue to grow the successful variety, you have to acquire the first generation (F1) seed from the hybrid grower.
The development of hybrids coincided with the industrialization, concentration, and standardization of agriculture after World War II. To increase yields, private companies bred plants to optimize them for machine harvesting and long-distance transport. As corporations took over family farms, they saturated North American agriculture with a limited group of profitable seed varieties, resulting in a major loss of genetic diversity. Seed prices rose and monoculture farming became increasingly dependent on fertilizers and insecticides, which pollute the environment.
In the 1950s, large agribusiness corporations began to privatize plant varieties. Thirty years later, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continued the trend toward limited genetic diversity, and today threatens to create a biologically unstable and nutritionally impoverished food system. In 2013, according Center for Food Safety (CFS), three transnational agrochemical corporations, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta dominated 53 percent of the global commercial seed market.
An Open Source Seed Alternative
Now a group of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in collaboration with citizens, plant breeders, farmers, seed companies and gardeners, have borrowed the open source software model from the computer industry to protect seed diversity. The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is a pledge printed on every seed packet developed under its provisions that guarantees the seeds enclosed can be grown, bred, or shared for replanting but never patented or privatized. When a user opens the seed packet they agree to abide by its provisions. The OSSI pledge states:
This Open Source Seed pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others’ use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives they will also be accompanied by this pledge.
The Open Source Seed Initiative is not just a legal free seed pledge but also a new seed breeding collective. As part of the seed initiative introduction, the group released 29 new varieties of vegetables and grains, including carrots, lettuce, celery, kale, squash, peppers, barley, spelt, and quinoa from breeders at universities and seed companies like High Mowing Organic Seeds and Wild Garden Seed.
Plant growers in Wisconsin know the Open Source Seed Initiative is a good start, but they also know we need a dramatically expanded network of citizen and local organization public domain plant breeders to make it happen. As Michael Pollan wrote in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, “Seeds have the power to preserve species, to enhance cultural as well as genetic diversity, to counter economic monopoly and to check the advance of conformity on all its many fronts.”