As more and more plant varieties have become privatized through patents, and as large corporations have bought up smaller seed breeders, a dangerous consolidation has occurred. The genetic diversity of agricultural crops has shrunk, making crops more vulnerable to disease and our food supply more insecure. Meanwhile, farmers and the public have become more dependent on a few large agrochemical companies.
In short, seed patents have become a tool for privatizing seed from the pool of open and commonly owned plant genetic resources: an insidious enclosure of seed commons.
This scenario is eerily similar to the consolidation of software for personal computers some twenty years ago. Microsoft used its market dominance to incorporate all sorts of software programs into its Windows operating system, a strategy sometimes referred to as “embrace, extend and extinguish.” As Microsoft exploited its de facto monopoly over common software systems, programs for word-processing, spreadsheets and other functions began to go out of business.
But just as open source software served as a powerful antidote to proprietary software, so a group of academics, activists and plant breeders in Germany has now pioneered a similar antidote to seed patents: an open source license.
The Open Source Seed license, recently released by a group called OpenSourceSeeds, is trying to “make seeds a common good again.” The license amounts to a form of “copyleft” for new plant varieties, enabling anyone to use the licensed seeds for free. Like the General Public License for free software, the seed license has one serious requirement: any seeds that are used, modified or sold must be passed along to others without any legal restrictions.