Walk through the produce aisle today and you can find labels for organic, fair trade, and local items. For shoppers who oppose the practices of seed agri-giants like Monsanto, one day there may be a new option to consider: open-source.
Inspired by the open-source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative has quietly spent the last two years developing a cache of seeds that they released to the world at a launch event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May. With names like "Sovereign" (a carrot variety) and "Midnight Lightning" (a zucchini), they packaged together 37 varieties of 14 crops attached to a pledge: Open-source seeds must stay freely available for use by all—no intellectual property rights can be claimed to the seeds or derivatives bred from them.
Today only three companies, Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta, account for half of all seed sales. For crops like corn and soy, there’s almost no genetic material left that’s not already owned and patented. With hundreds of new patents filed every month, an emerging movement of scientists, breeders, and farmers is realizing that there is only a limited-time opportunity to save seeds for the public domain.
"We decided to essentially create a national park for seeds, a protected commons," says Irwin Goldman, a University of Wisconsin researcher leading the initiative. "We feel there is a window of time. We need to do this now or else we won’t be able to do it."
For centuries, farmers and breeders traded seeds and developed varieties well-suited for their local environment. But with the rise of gene and seed patenting over the last several decades, that’s largely been stifled. Today, farmers license seeds to plant once a season, but can’t replant them or work to improve them. Monsanto has a long track record of suing farmers for reusing or saving seed, or even having it grow on their land accidentally, blown over from neighboring farms. Even the varieties that Goldman develops in his work at a public university are usually patented and licensed through the university’s technology transfer office.
"Essentially, the farmer is renting the seed from a company. It restricts breeding, and restricts interchange," Goldman says. "We all end up breeding in kind of a silo. ... We are trusting companies with all the innovation."
Large companies do pour millions into R&D for new conventional and genetically modified seed varieties. But high-performing crops and "excellent technology" aren’t everything, says Goldman. Over time, low-genetic diversity reduces humanity’s ability to respond to new pests and the challenges posed by climate change. It also reduces economic diversity—not every farmer can afford high-priced transgenic seeds, and farmers could slowly lose their freedom to, say, opt-out of GMOs.
"I recognize that intellectual property protections are valuable," says Goldman, who has patented many seed varieties himself and will continue to do so. "But anything that contributes to the diversity of the food system is a good thing for anyone who eats. We don’t know what the needs will be for the crops of the future."
It took some experimenting to get to the final open-source concept. Originally, the seed varieties contributed by university and private breeders were going to have an official open-source seed license attached to them. After working with lawyers and creating an eight-page single-spaced document that could only be enforceable if it followed the seeds with each transfer, they realized they were on the wrong path. A license like that would stifle the very tinkering they were hoping to encourage. Instead, there's one short paragraph printed on the packet, a simple pledge based on trust.
Two organic seed companies, Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed and Vermont’s High Mowing Organic Seeds, are already selling the open-source seeds in their catalogues, and the hope is a growing number of breeders and farmers will take interest. Goldman says that while it will be harder for private breeders to make a big profit on unpatented seeds, it’s still possible, especially if "open-source" can one day develop credibility as a movement and brand. There's precedent: Software companies like Red Hat and Cloudera have built multi-million dollar businesses on top of open-source code.
The group has distributed 6,000 seed packets already, including mailing samples to the First Lady, senators, and USDA officials (they are still available for order at a cost of $25). So far, it’s been a grassroots effort, with Goldman recruiting his family to help form a seed warehouse and assembly line in his living room. Now, the group is working to establish a nonprofit that will continue distributing and expanding the collection of open-source seeds.
Working with Wisconsin sociologist Jack Kloppenburg, author of a book that documents the growing corporate control of genetic seed diversity, Goldman hopes the initiative can eventually seed a larger open-source food movement that extends to labels on the produce that consumers see in the grocery aisle. "This is the very beginning," he says.