‘Open-source’ seed released to nurture patent-free food

A new initiative will help farmers overcome intellectual property law restrictions on quality seeds

An ‘open-source’ seed initiative has released 36 varieties of 14 food crops, which the project’s leaders say could help poor farmers get access to better quality seeds.

The new seed varieties have been available for delivery globally from mid-May, said Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder and horticulturalist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was involved in the release.

He told SciDev.Net that there have already been more than 350 orders from around the world, and that the project’s ultimate aim is to help change the international rules that limit the exchange of seeds of crops such as carrot, kale, lettuce, broccoli and quinoa.

All seed packets include an ‘open-source seed pledge’. This states that the seeds can be used in any way and that any new crop varieties developed from them must remain free for everyone to use.

“We cannot be sure that someone will not try and patent or restrict [the seeds we’ve released], but we will do our best to survey what happens to these materials as they go out into the community,” said Goldman.

Today, many countries place complex international legislation on seeds, involving rules on patents and other forms of intellectual property protection. This means farmers are prohibited from harvesting seeds and using them the following season.

“We want to restore the practice of sharing planting materials freely between breeders. That was a wonderful way to work until more than 20 years ago.”

“We want to restore the practice of sharing planting materials freely between breeders. That was a wonderful way to work until more than 20 years ago,” said Goldman.

The release was made by the US-based Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), a project established in 2011 that believes that genetic resources – in the form of seeds – should be a common resource that anyone can use as they see fit. Its members fear that existing and future intellectual property laws could result in all plant genetic material being locked out of public reach.

Janny van Beem, head of the Germplasm Acquisition and Distribution Unit at research organisation the International Potato Center, praises initiatives that share and facilitate the exchange of genetic resources.

Poor farmers often cannot afford good-quality seeds developed by multinationals and so end up using low-end crops harvested locally, she explained.

“This kind of movement has an impact on poor farmers in the developing world: a new free variety used properly – released by national authorities – could dramatically change their situation and livelihoods.”

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Van Beem highlights Cooperation 88, a potato variety released almost 30 years ago by Yunnan Normal University in China after free exchange of genetic material with the International Potato Center. She says this variety is now sown across more than 390,000 hectares in the developing world – almost twice the area covered by the United States’ leading potato variety.

“Open source means sharing, and shared seed can be the foundation of a more sustainable and more just food system,” says Jack Kloppenburg, a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who coordinates OSSI along with Goldman and a graduate student.

He explains that a small group of big agribusinesses including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and BASF own a 66% market share of commercial seeds.

Kloppenburg says that there are several movements similar to OSSI around the world – including the Seed Freedom group, which campaigns against what it sees as ‘illegitimate’ and restrictive seed laws – and it remains unclear which model will be best in the future.

This article was first published by SciDev.