The past thirty years have seen a massive patent grab to control agricultural seeds and the crops that are grown, not just in the US but around the world. In the name of progress and greater yields, seed companies introduced proprietary GMO and hybrid seeds, slowly squeezing out seeds that are more common and shareable. This is exactly what Microsoft did in software, using Windows to marginalize competing software systems, and this is what bottling companies have done to water, trying to supplant tap water with heavily marketed branded water.
Some folks at the University of Wisconsin have launched a new effort to fight this trend in the seed market through what they call the Open Source Seed Initiative. The project last week released 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains, all of them licensed under the equivalent of software’s General Public License (GPL), which is what has allowed GNU/Linux to remain in the commons.
The license, known as the Open Source Seed Pledge, lets anyone use the open source seeds for whatever purpose they want – provided that any subsequent seeds produced are also made available on the same basis. The idea is to bypass the built-in bias of proprietary control in the patent system, and assure that the new seeds will be available for anyone to grow, breed and share in perpetuity, without the fear of someone imposing intellectual property restrictions on later uses of the seeds.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison news office quoted horticulture professor and plant breeder Irwin Goldman, one of the authors of the pledge, as saying: “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.” Last week Goldman released two carrot varieties he developed, named Sovereign and Oranje, at a public ceremony outside of the university’s microbial sciences building.
UW-Madison also noted, “Many of the seeds for our nation's big crop plants – field corn and soybeans – are already restricted through patents, licenses and other forms of intellectual property protection. Increasingly, this is happening to vegetable, fruit and small grain seeds. Members of OSSI worry that this trend could lead to a time when there's no longer any valuable plant germplasm available for public use.”
The Open Source Seed Pledge is not some lengthy, complicated legal license; it’s a short and simple statement printed on all OSSI seed packets that simply notes that the seeds cannot be legally protected or taken private (through patents). By opening the seed packet, a person indicates their agreement with the license and pledges to keep the seeds in the public domain.
Jack Kloppenburg, another author of the Pledge, said, “It creates a parallel system, a new space where breeders and farmers can share seeds. And, because it applies to derivatives, it makes for an expanding pool of germplasm that any plant breeder can freely use.”
It’s hard for me to assess the legal rigor of the new license or its practical consequences – i.e., will it stand up to litigation and will it prevent corporations from finding legal means to appropriate the seeds? It sounds as if Kloppenburg and Goldman don't really know. A story by National Public Radio noted that some allies of the licenses want to develop “a more comprehensive open source license for seeds.” Other want to take the project international.
Clearly, the backers of OSSI want the idea to germinate: “This is the birth of a movement,” Kloppenburg told NPR. “Open source means sharing, and shared seed can be the foundation of a more sustainable and more just food system.”
Even if the licenses are more symbolic than legally enforceable, Kloppenburg sees them as a great way to educate the public and farmers that a viable alternative is needed. He regards open source seeds as an important way to promote biodiversity and open innovation, and to reduce corporate concentration among seed vendors.
The very existence of the Open Source Seed Initiative points up the value of preventing corporations from further enclosing academic research. This has become a serious problem in the past few decades as universities try to generate more revenues for themselves by patenting as much of their knowledge as possible. In effect, this makes many academic scientists beholden to the research priorities of the big companies – i.e., short-term, applied research to serve private profits rather than long-term, basic research to serve the public good.
A horticulture department that dependent on the largess of an ag-bio tech company would think twice about launching an open source seed initiative -- much as biotech companies have frowned upon academics who want to study the ecological impacts of GMOs or promote organic Integrated Pest Management techniques.
So, a hearty bravo to UW-Madison for its brave initiative to bring open source principles (back) to agriculture, making shareable, cooperative innovation in agricultural seeds more robust -- and legal -- again. (For more on the open seed, here is a 2013 essay by Jack Klopenberg on "seed sovereignty.")