How Open Source Seeds Can Increase Food Security

Keeping Seeds in the Public Domain

by BC Farms & Food  -  Permalink
March 22, 2023

Open source seeds increase food security by keeping seeds in the public domain.

Open Source Seeds

As community food movements bloom across North America, their efforts to provide food security face a nearly invisible threat from multinational seed patent holders like DuPont and Monsanto (Bayer)—the loss of public domain seed. Unlike traditional seeds, which have been passed down from generation to generation, patented seeds cannot be saved, replanted or shared by gardeners and farmers.

In response to this threat, a group of concerned scientists, plant breeders and seed growers launched the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), to keep seeds as a common resource for all. Inspired by the open source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative seeks to ensure four freedoms:

• The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose.
• The freedom to share, trade or sell seed to others.
• The freedom to trial and study seed, and to share or publish information about it.
• The freedom to select and adapt seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties.

Open Source Seeds: Selecting and Saving Seeds

Open Source SeedSince 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. More importantly, they were 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 later generations. If you want to continue to grow the successful variety, you have to acquire the first generation (F1) seed from the hybrid grower.

Combine HarvesterThe 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.

Privatizing Plant Varieties

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. Today, this threatens to create a biologically unstable and nutritionally impoverished food system.

At present, according to the Center for Food Safety, just 10 seed companies control 57 percent of the global seed market. “Seed industry concentration has resulted from major pesticide manufacturers like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer and Dow buying up half the world’s seed supply.”

An Open Source Seed Alternative

Looking for a way to counter this, in 2012, a group of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in collaboration with citizens, plant breeders, farmers, seed companies and gardeners, came together to found the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). Deeply concerned with the way a handful of corporations were using intellectual property rights to control and restrict the use of seeds worldwide, OSSI committed to a new model for “open source” seed.

Open source seed creates a “protected commons” of seed varieties whose genes cannot be barred from use by patents or other legal restrictions. Plant breeders who make their varieties available exclusively under the Open Source Seed Initiative pledge guarantee the seeds can be grown, bred or shared for replanting, but never patented or privatized. Users who open their seed packets agree to abide by its provisions.

The OSSI Pledge
“You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this Pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.”

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 has released hundreds of open source varieties of vegetables, flowers and grains, including tomatoes, garlic, beans, carrots, lettuce, celery, kale, squash, peppers, barley, spelt, and quinoa from breeders at universities and seed companies like Wild Garden Seed.

Movement for Resilient Public Domain Seed

The movement for resilient seed systems is growing across North America, and the Open Source Seed Initiative is a model. In Canada, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security and other organizations are taking action to increase the diversity of ecological seed and promote food security.

Open source seeds are vital to our survival. 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.”



More articles:
Marsha Goldberg: Protecting Heritage Seeds

The Seeds of SustainabilityThe Seeds of Sustainability

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10 Tips for Year-Round Vegetable Gardens10 Tips for Year-Round Vegetable Gardens

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