(NaturalNews) In a public ceremony on April 16, a coalition of farmers, scientists and sustainable food advocates launched the Open Source Seed Pledge, a parallel licensing system designed to keep seeds in the hands of the public and prevent them from being patented by private interests.
Plant researchers released the seeds of 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains under the pledge in a ceremony at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage, and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future," said plant breeder and UW-Madison professor Irwin Goldman, one of the pledge's co-authors.
Inspired by software community
The pledge is an effort of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), which was established in 2011 to address the increasing push by agricultural companies to secure patents over nearly all of the world's seed stock. OSSI members, which include farmers, public plant breeders and sustainable food advocates, are concerned that, if this trend is not countered, it could eventually become impossible for independent farmers or breeders to save their own seed or develop their own new varieties without paying fees to a private company. Such a situation already practically exists for commercial corn and soybeans, and is increasingly occurring with small grains, vegetables and fruits.
"Already, many public breeders don't have the freedom to operate. They can't do what they want to do as often as they would like," said Jack Kloppenburg, author of First the Seed and a major thinker behind the OSSI.
The OSSI was inspired by the open-source software movement, which develops and releases software with the full code included. This allows developers to easily check, improve upon and develop new software from each others' works.
Because the OSSI ran into difficulties in developing a full open-source license for seeds, the group decided to start out with a simpler first step: the Open Source Seed Pledge. Printed on the packet, the pledge simply states that anyone who opens the packet agrees to keep the seeds within and any of their descendents and derivatives (including new varieties bred from them) in the public domain.
"It's almost like a haiku," Goldman said. "It basically says these seeds are free to use in any way you want. They can't be legally protected. Enjoy them."
"It creates a parallel system, a new space where breeders and farmers can share seeds," Kloppenburg said. "And, because it applies to derivatives, it makes for an expanding pool of germplasm that any plant breeder can freely use."
Goldman noted that the Open Source Seed Pledge is not necessarily a replacement for traditional licensing. Although Goldman has released two new carrot varieties under the pledge, he also plans to license other varieties through UW-Madison's patenting and licensing arm. He said that he plans to conventionally license any variety that he hopes to see adopted by large seed companies, such as carrots with improved disease resistance.
But he noted that breeders should not assume that the only path to financial success is through conventional licensing.
"There are economic opportunities here," he notes. "You can sell these open source seeds just like you'd sell any other seeds. The difference is that the recipients can actually do stuff with them, which is kind of fun."
Members of the OSSI hope that the pledge will be just the first step toward building a large body of public domain seeds worldwide.
"This is the birth of a movement," Kloppenburg said. "Open source means sharing, and shared seed can be the foundation of a more sustainable and more just food system."