Open Source Seeds
A group of researchers and plant breeders based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Thursday announced a new initiative intended to break the monopoly control over plant genetic materials promoted by the use of patent law in seed research. The current system, rooted in intellectual property law, provides a 20-year exclusive patent to seed breeders who develop a new variety. Defenders of the current system argue it is necessary to encourage and reward innovation, and to make commercial seed breeding profitable.
But critics have long argued that this system rewards commercial seed breeders at the expense of farmers, undermines in situ conservation, denies the important role played in seed breeding and conservation by farmers, and undermines innovation by restricting access to seed.
So last week, a group of seed breeders launched a new initiative rooted in the Open Source Software movement. The idea is that the genetic material embodied in the seed should be freely available and exchangeable. The Open Source Seed Initiative is passing out 29 new varieties of 14 different crops, including carrots, kale, broccoli, and quinoa. The seeds may be used for growing crops, saved for future plantings, and used freely in future research. It is subject to only one restriction: that any new varieties developed from the source seed must also be open source and made freely available to others to use in the same way. It’s a fascinating idea that recalls traditional practices of seed breeding and exchange by farmers around the world. And it’s one I hope takes off!