The Open Source Seed Initiative aims to provide an alternative to the patent-protected seeds sold by major producers such as Monsanto and DuPont.
This patent-free seed initiative sets an example that citizens the world over need to follow in order to safeguard food security and sovereignty from the predations of GMO companies.
Fighting the seed monopoly: "We want to make free seed a sort of meme"
theguardian.com, 2 May 2014
* The Open Source Seed Initiative aims to provide an alternative to the patent-protected seeds sold by major producers such as Monsanto and DuPont
By trade, Jack Kloppenburg is a sociologist and a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Lately, however, his job has entailed packaging seeds and mailing them to farmers, in addition to his normal teaching and grading duties.
This change in routine was prompted by the unexpected popularity of the recently launched Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) a project spearheaded by Kloppenburg and Wisconsin horticulture professor Irwin Goldman. In mid-April, the initiative released 36 seed varieties, all free from the patent restrictions that limit much of the seed commercially available today.
"The thing went viral and it's all over the place now," Kloppenburg said. "We got 230 orders from eight countries, when we hadn't even anticipated selling any seed."
The initiative's goal is to provide an alternative to the patent-protected seeds sold by major producers such as Monsanto and DuPont, most of which require buyers to sign agreements that create strict limits on how the seed can be used. Farmers are generally prohibited from saving seed from their crops to plant the following year, for example; new seeds must be purchased for each planting.
Seed giants like Monsanto argue that this approach encourages innovation by allowing companies to protect the investment of time and money they put into developing new plant varieties. Kloppenburg and his OSSI partners, however, find the practice unsettling.
"They are using intellectual property rights, especially patents, to separate farmers from a fundamental means of production," he said. "Control of the seed is, in many ways, control over the entire food supply."
Furthermore, the concentration of the industry into a few big players – just three companies sell more than half the seeds on the market, according to the Center for Food Safety – means that the biological diversity of crops is declining, making our food supply less likely to adapt well to climate change, he said.
Looking for solutions to these concerns, OSSI drew inspiration from the open-source software movement, which creates computer code available to anyone to study, modify, or distribute. Much open-source software is regulated by legally binding licenses that give users wide latitude to alter and even commercialize the code.
To adapt the open source concept to seeds, OSSI decided to use a less formal pledge rather than a licensing system. Each packet of OSSI seeds sold will be printed with a statement that reads, in part, "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 you will acknowledge the source of these seeds and accompany your transfer with this pledge."
Though the pledge does not allow OSSI to take violators to court, Kloppenburg feels that this less restrictive approach is more within the spirit of the project, he said. He hopes the pledge will kickstart a movement toward seeds unrestricted by patents and legal agreements; he can, he said, imagine a day when "open-source seed" is a term used to attract sustainability-conscious shoppers in the way the organic label does today.
"We don't want to be police," he said. "We want to make free seed a sort of meme, to raise people's consciousness and awareness."
Without legal protections keeping open-source seeds from being patented, however, OSSI's approach is unlikely to solve the long-term problems, said Tom Stearns, founder of partner company High Mowing Organic Seeds. The company contributed just one seed to the recent release so that it can start small and assess how the open-source pledge actually functions in the market, he said.
"I think this is a great start, but I don't think it's nearly enough," Stearns said. "This is one attempt that I hope will be the beginning of many conversations and many attempts to address the intellectual property challenge."
OSSI plans to incorporate as a nonprofit organization, but partners and customers are free to use the open-source seeds to make money, as long as they don't patent any of their developments.
The first round of seeds released includes quinoa, peppers, and squash developed by Wild Garden Seed in Oregon, lettuce and kale from Lupine Knoll Farm in Oregon, carrots bred by Goldman, and spelt from High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont. Currently, the initiative is selling sample packs of 15 seeds for $25 each, but the plan is eventually to link to individual partner breeders through the site, so customers can buy directly, Kloppenburg said.
"We're not necessarily in it to make as much money as we can," he said. "We want to generate new options."
Sarah Shemkus is a freelance reporter and editor who writes about business, technology, food and the places where they all meet. Find her on Twitter at @shemkus