'Open Source' Seeds Are Making a Necessary Comeback

According to legend -- one that is, unfortunately, not very true -- no one single person knows the full recipe for Coca-Cola. Instead, two of the top executives each know half of the formula, making sure the company's trademark mix of sugar, salt, water, and whatever else they're putting in can never be replicated completely. This is the opposite of "open source."

Open source, instead, is when the owners of a product open up the vault and let everyone tinker with the formula, hoping to make the final product better. And now, scientists and food activists are trying to bring that thinking to the world of farming. Or, more accurately, back to the world of farming.

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Open Source Seed Initiative -- or, OSSI if you want to use their spy agency-like acronym -- is a collection of farmers, students and teachers, and seed producers that feel we can all benefit when corporate patents are taken out of the mix. In an event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they announced they'll give away 29 new varieties of 14 different crops -- things like celery, sweet peppers, kale, and carrots, all organic -- to anyone who wants them, for use in any way they please. If they want to plant them, great. If they want to tinker with the seeds and make new varieties, even better.

There's only one catch: Upon opening a packet of seeds, the user acknowledges that any new developments stemming from this initial batch of seeds must also remain "open source," so anyone else can also tinker with it down the road. This is a big difference from what goes on through the rest of the industry.

See: The downside of open source is that it's not incredibly profitable. Because of the lack of an official "author" or "inventor" of the creation -- be it a new strain of plant or new app for your iPhone -- it's difficult to understand who gets the money. Which is where intellectual property laws and patents come in.

Companies develop seeds in their own private labs, sell them to consumers, and bring in the lawyers if the seeds aren't being used properly. (Monsanto, not surprisingly, is quite litigious when it comes to how their seeds are used.) With the law's current wording, developers of new seeds get a 20 year window of marketing exclusivity before others can use them, just like the 20 year window manufacturers of newly developed drugs get to sell their product before generic versions can hit the shelves. These two decades of exclusive sales are what, theoretically, incentivizes the developers in the first place.

But also where, according to the OSSI, great new ideas come screeching to a halt:

[T]urning seeds into private property has contributed to the rise of big seed companies that in turn promote ever-bigger, more specialized farms. "The problem is concentration, and the narrow set of uses to which the technology and the breeding are being put," he says.

This, the OCCI says, is why our dinner plates are generally full of nothing but items produced from corn and soybeans. Not only is this lack of diversity dangerous from a health perspective, it's troubling from a global survival standpoint. For instance, if suddenly a new strain of superbug wipes out a large chunk of our world's corn supply, we don't have many alternatives out there to fill that void. And if you think that scenario is far-fetched, just hop in your time machine and tell that to the 19th-century Irish.

Perhaps even more troubling is that there's a need to bring about awareness of open source seeds in the first place. The free exchange of seeds from farmer to farmer, to do with them what they please, is one of the great traditions of farming. As Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder, reminisced to NPR about how it was 20 years ago:

"If other breeders asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed, and they would do the same for us," he says. "That was a wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us."

Farming is an old profession, existing long before corporations, copyrights, and legalities entered into the mix. And trading seeds is as old as the business itself. Maybe it makes sense for the world of farming to go back to its roots by allowing farmers to tinker away and improve their industry without worrying about being sued.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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