Farmers have traditionally gathered and saved seeds from one growing season to plant in the next. But this age-old tradition is being threatened by corporations that are increasingly restricting access to seeds through patents.
A new group with ties to the University of Wisconsin-Madison is trying to counter this trend by ensuring that certain seed lines are never patented and remain accessible to individuals who want to plant or use them to produce new varieties. Following the lead of supporters of open-source software, the Open Source Seed Initiative hopes to promote an ethic of sharing among plant breeders.
Jack Kloppenburg, professor of community and environmental sociology, and Irwin Goldman, professor of horticulture, are co-founders of the group.
Kloppenburg says corporate-sponsored seed breeding is a problem not just for the public entities involved in breeding, but for citizens at large. "Seeds are a fundamental input of agriculture -- sort of the alpha and omega. None of us eat without seeds being put in the ground.
"Today germplasm is dominated and locked up by the corporations," Kloppenburg adds, referring to the genetic material in seeds. "Where do you go if you're a breeder? Wouldn't it be better to have seed that you could at least breed with? Open-source seeds would be free for breeding. We are interested in getting to a protected commons, in which the people who will share freely can share freely, but those who won't share are excluded."
Founded in 2012, the Open Source Seed Initiative hopes to release its first open-source seeds this year.
Goldman, an expert in carrot seed breeding and chair of the horticulture department, recently got permission from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to designate two of his carrot seeds as open source. Normally, WARF would have patented and potentially licensed the seeds.
Goldman is hopeful that his open-source seed-breeding colleagues at Oregon State University, the University of Washington and the University of Minnesota will succeed in convincing their institutions to grant similar permission for some of their seeds. Other farmer-breeders and commercial breeders in the group may also contribute open-source seeds.
Goldman says these seeds could be sold commercially like any others. He also thinks it might be possible to create a nonprofit organization to distribute them.
"The economics would be like any other seed," he says. "Some farmer would have to be willing to take the risk to produce the seed, and somebody would have to clean the seeds and put them in a container."
Like fair-trade products, open-source seeds would appeal to people's values, adds Goldman.
"When I talk to students about it, they say 'I'd buy it,' because they support the notion of open source," Goldman says. "Companies now have moved to open-source software. People really like open source software. Maybe it could happen in agriculture."
The Gene Giants
In recent decades, large seed companies have swallowed up smaller companies and aggressively obtained patent protection for their seeds.
According to the Center for Food Safety, three corporations -- Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta -- now control more than half of the global commercial seed market. This has resulted in dramatic increases in the cost of seeds (PDF). From 1995 to 2011, the average price of soybean seed to plant one acre increased 325% (PDF) in the U.S. In the same period, the price of corn seed increased 259% (PDF), while cotton seed increased 516% (PDF).
The global corporations are fiercely protective of their patents. In recent decades, Monsanto has filed 142 alleged seed patent infringement lawsuits against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in 27 states and has received almost $24 million in judgments, according to a 2013 report (PDF) by the Center for Food Safety.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Indiana farmer who had planted second- and third-generation Monsanto seeds had infringed a patent.
In Wisconsin and Minnesota, Native Americans worry that genetically modified wild rice under development could one day contaminate traditional rice stands. Would this make the Native grower guilty of patent infringement?
Because of the increase in patented seeds in recent decades, university plant breeders, small commercial breeders and farmer-breeders have less access to genetic material and breeding methods. Open-source advocates refer to the small but increasingly powerful group of corporations that own patented seeds as the "Gene Giants."
Goldman says commercial seed breeders who patent their products are critical to the seed industry. They make a large investment to produce a product that may take 10 years to get to market. But it's equally important to maintain a stock of legally unprotected and unpatented seeds.
"I'd like to have a special channel that's just for open-source seeds," Goldman says. "The analogy I use is that it is like a national park. Let's say we decide as a society that we're going to set aside some of these seeds that are protected from patenting. Anybody can get access. You might have to pay a little fee to get into the park, but anyone can use this material."
Goldman is concerned that if the trend toward patenting seeds continues, it may one day pose a threat to good plant breeding.
"If something is patented, I can't use it in my breeding program because I can't afford to license the patent," he says. "Plant breeding, like animal breeding, is dependent on sharing germplasm and making crosses with everybody else's material."
The public good
The Open Source Seed Initiative received its first substantial funding last fall: $10,000 from Organic Valley Co-op of La Farge, Wis.
Goldman says the group might use the money to develop a website and to host its own conference one day.
For now, Goldman and Kloppenburg are in demand at events around the country as interest in the open-source seed movement grows. In the past year, Kloppenburg has presented papers at Yale University, the Seed Savers Exchange Conference and the Canadian Farmers Union. The group also presented a paper at the Organic Seed Growers Conference in January at Oregon State University. Goldman will also address a student group at Cornell University in the spring.
"Fifty years ago, the seed companies were not very developed. Now the Monsantos of the world are dominant," Goldman says. "In the public sector, I feel I need to do something unique that's good for the general public. It's good for humanity to have genetic resources that aren't legally protected. This, to me, represents something quite beautiful."