The Open Source Seed Initiative puts seeds in the public domain for gardeners to freely grow, breed, and share.
These days, most garden and farm crop seeds are patented and legally protected from being used to breed other varieties, or even to save and replant again, which limits the ability of gardeners, farmers, and plant breeders to improve those varieties. And because three big companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont) own and control about half of all commercial seed sales, the restrictive nature of keeping their seeds as intellectual property helps those seed companies maintain control of a large portion of the seeds responsible for the global food supply.
In an effort to "free the seeds" from patenting, licensing, and other intellectual property protections, the Open Source Seed Initiative aims to restore the formerly common practice of open sharing among growers, by keeping certain vegetable seeds in the public domain and protecting them (and any future varieties derived from them) from being patented in the future.
"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." - Irwin Goldman, UW-Madison horticulture professor and plant breeder
The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) has been working to reverse the trend of decreasing availability of plant germplasm (seeds) that plant breeders and farmers can work with, which greatly restricts the pool of genetic resources available to those working toward more diversity in agricultural seeds.
OSSI has been working on this important issue since 2011, and this past month released a number of crop seeds under an Open Source Seed Pledge that states that the seeds can be "freely used, sold, bred, and shared, but not legally restricted."
"I liken it to a genetic easement. Or, a national park for seeds." - Goldman
At the launch event on April 17th, at the University of Wisconsin Madison Campus, OSSI members passed out seed packets of 36 varieties of 14 different crops that have been developed as open source, with the following pledge printed on the packets:
"This Open Source Seed pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. 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 they will also be accompanied by this pledge."
By putting these open source seeds in the public domain, it opens the way for small plant breeders, seed companies, and home growers to not only freely grow and share these varieties, but to also improve upon them with their own breeding program, and to then grow and sell those seeds with their own open source license.
Although this movement is quite small, just a seed itself, the concept of keeping some plant genetics in a protected commons is one that deserves to grow and thrive, and could be a cornerstone of increased diversity in the ag sector, especially for small-scale growers.
"This is the birth of a movement. Open source means sharing, and shared seed can be the foundation of a more sustainable and more just food system." - Jack Kloppenburg, UW-Madison professor and author of First the Seed
Some of these open source seeds will be available through two small seed companies, High Mowing Organic Seeds and Wild Garden Seed, beginning this year, and an assortment of 15 open source seed packets of Certified Organic vegetable varieties is available from OSSI for pre-order (delivery in mid-May 2014).