A group of scientists and food activists is changing the rules that govern seeds.
They’re using the open source software development model to create seeds that can be planted for food.
Software is called open source when the source code is right there for anyone to install, learn from, or customize. It’s built and maintained by volunteer programmers and you don’t have to pay a royalty or fee to the license holder. You use open source software everyday if your internet browser is set to Mozilla Firefox or your mobile devices run on the Android operating system.
Seeds were always open source; we just didn’t know it.
For thousands of years farmers and backyard gardeners have experimented with seeds, breeding and adapting them to suit their tastes and needs. At the end of each season they’d share their experience and experiments with the community through seed swaps and exchanges.
Modern agriculture has turned this ancient model on its head. Through genetic engineering, companies like Monsanto and DuPont are able to insert a single new gene into the cell of a plant and claim ownership of all future seeds from the line. Seeds these days are intellectual property. They’re patented like inventions and a grower needs permission from the patent holder to plant them. And the GMO seed industry is playing hardball with its patents. The companies employ a small army of ‘seed police’ operating in rural America, threatening small farmers, shop owners, and community co-ops with patent infringement lawsuits. They’ve gone after farmers for violating patents by saving seeds from a harvest for replanting the next season, and have even sued inadvertent growers when the wind was proven to carry seeds from one farmer’s field to another. They’ve successfully argued patent enforcement all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Open Source Seed Initiative‘s rallying cry is Free the Seeds.
The group aims to restore the practice of open sharing among growers by keeping certain seeds in the public domain. The free seed movement asserts that genetic engineers are falsely claiming dominion over something that embodies millennia of natural evolution and centuries of innovation contributed by farmers and natural seed breeders. And more critically, seed patents are a threat to the food security of future generations. In this time of climate change we need to preserve biodiversity in agriculture and encourage farmers to adapt and evolve along with the changing agro-ecosystem. Patents limit diversity and concentrate ownership in just a few hands. A single crop failure could be a disaster of unprecedented scale.
The Open Source Seed Initiative has just released the first set of open source seeds—36 varieties of 14 different herb, grain, and vegetable crops. Each packet is printed with the OSSI Pledge that the seeds and their derivatives will be used in a free and unrestricted manner. You can order a home gardener’s seed set of 14 organic vegetable varieties for $25. Proceeds go to the OSSI fund for Open Source Breeding.