A group of scientists, artists, farmers, students and sustainable food systems advocates gathered on a lawn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last week surrounded by fluttering “Save the Seed” signs to release a group of Open Source seeds.
These are seeds that can be used without restriction for plant breeding, growing and saving for the next year’s crop.
During the event, 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains were publicly released to those in attendance and organizers asked people taking the seed to recite an Open Source Seed Pledge.
The pledge, developed through an effort known as the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), is designed to keep the new seeds free for people to grow, breed and share in perpetuity, with the goal of protecting the plants from patents and other restrictions.
Irwin Goldman, a UW-Madison horticulture professor and plant breeder of carrots, onions and table beets, was one of the organizers of the initiative.
He says that the system of patenting seed in recent years is hindering development of new varieties. He and co-organizer Jack Kloppenburg, a professor of community and environment sociology, believe that with climate change and more people to feed, plant breeders will need all the tools they can get to produce more and better food.
Kloppenburg said the idea of the open source seed came from open source computer software which is developed and then released freely to be used by anyone.
During the rally, Kloppenburg called much of today’s patented seed “indentured” and asked “if farmers use it are they not in some way indentured as well?”
As seed companies continue to be bought up, the patenting of germplasm – the genetic material in the seed – is also beginning to limit even home gardeners, he said.
To respond to different conditions in the world today, plant breeders will need all the variety they can get to create new plants, says Kloppenburg. “Can we depend on a narrow set of companies with a narrow set of varieties?”
He explains that the “free” seed is “free as in speech, not free as in beer. It’s not cost-less but we all need free speech.”
Kloppenburg said he hopes the movement will grow and provide plant breeders with germplasm to “breed what needs to be bred.” The OSSI hopes to build an expanding pool of material that’s free.
Goldman released two carrot varieties he developed -- named Sovereign and Oranje – at the public ceremony (April 17.)
Normally any plant that is developed by UW staff is licensed through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and Goldman said the funds generated by that process are used to support the ongoing programs and graduate students that help develop the seed.
However, WARF has been supportive of the Open Source Seed idea and has allowed him to release the two carrot varieties into the free seed program.
Seed varieties were also released from supporters at Washington State University, Oregon State University and Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seed Company.
In addition to handing out the Open Source Seeds in Madison, organizers were putting them into the hands of national leaders like Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and influential food leaders like Michael Pollan as well as plant breeders and growers.
Jahi Chapell, director of agroecology at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, said he was pleased to be part of the OSSI, which he considers a “key to the food system.
“It’s a question of balance and right now we’re unbalanced. It’s not true that patents always lead to more innovation. When you lock up the materials we’re not able to create the innovation.”
Tom Stearns, president of High Mowing Seeds, asked the group to imagine artists who were prevented from using the color red or musicians who couldn’t use the C note.
“The single most important thing we can do is grow our food and seeds play such a critical role. This is not the time to restrict the varieties we can breed.”
Kloppenburg and Goldman worry that the preponderance of farm-level seed is already restricted through patents, licenses and other forms of intellectual property protection. Now it’s also happening to vegetable, fruit and small grain seeds.
They worry that this trend could lead to a time when there’s no longer any useful germplasm available for use by public-institution plant breeders and farmer-breeders.
That concern led them to the open source seed movement.
Kloppenburg, author of “First the Seed,” has provided much of the guiding vision for the OSSI group. He decried the $370 price tag on the bag of hybrid seed corn at the ceremony on campus.
He and Goldman have been working on the OSSI since 2011, working with public plant breeders, farmers, non-governmental organization staff and sustainable food systems advocates from around the nation concerned about the decreasing availability of unrestricted plant germplasm.
As they looked into open source seeds, members of the group starting exploring how to develop open source licenses for seeds, but ran into numerous roadblocks. This spring, eager to get things moving forward again, Goldman and Kloppenburg convinced the group to embrace the simplest option they had discussed -- the Open Source Seed Pledge.
Unlike the comprehensive open source licenses the OSSI group originally tried to develop, the pledge is very concise. It's so short it will be printed on all OSSI seed packets.
“It basically says these seeds are free to use in any way you want. They can't be legally protected. Enjoy them,” says Goldman.
Any plant variety that is developed from one of the open source seed varieties must also be kept “free” and this will help create an expanding pool of free seed, Kloppenburg said.
“This is the birth of a movement,” says Kloppenburg. “Open source means sharing, and shared seed can be the foundation of a more sustainable and more just food system.”