The Open Source Seed Initiative: Let’s Take Back Our Seeds

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Photo by Adaptive Seeds
‘Cascade Ruby-Gold’ flint corn is a variety pledged through the Open Source Seed Initiative.

Sharp-eyed gardeners navigating select seed catalogs this winter and spring may notice an unfamiliar category: “Open Source” seed.

This new brand, labeled as “Open Source,” “OSSI” or “Open Source Seed Initiative,” takes its place alongside more familiar designations, such as “heirloom” and “Certified Organic,” meant to help shoppers narrow their choices. But OSSI is really more of an anti-brand because it designates “freed seed.” That means any variety carrying this label is unencumbered by patents and other restrictions that increasingly take varieties out of circulation, as patented seed can’t legally be saved, replanted or shared, and must be repurchased year after year.

Most troubling: Patented genetics can’t be used for plant-breeding purposes, meaning breeders at universities and small seed companies — who do promising work, particularly on organic seed — feel this shrinking diversity head-on. Raw material is lost to corporate control. In this growing genetic vacuum, plant breeders can’t access the full diversity of what should be our shared seed heritage. Now, especially, we need new varieties that are better adapted to organic growing and a changing climate.

That’s where the Open Source Seed Initiative comes in. It’s an open commons for germplasm (genetic material), formed in 2012 as a collaboration between breeders, farmers and seed companies, and modeled after open-source software. OSSI has set up a parallel, alternative track to the handful of corporate giants that own most global seed assets.

“We’re working to build a commercial model so people can buy freed seed,” says Jack Kloppenburg, an OSSI board member and sociologist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has been fighting corporate control of seed for three decades. “No matter what Monsanto, Seminis and Syngenta do, OSSI can do its own thing alongside, proactively. Not to say we won’t worry about what happens out there; the issues are substantial. But to the extent that OSSI can support and be part of the alternative system, that’s where we want to be.”

Author and OSSI plant breeder Carol Deppe of Oregon’s Fertile Valley Seeds is fighting this battle, too. “The old public-domain model of a commons for seed ultimately doesn’t work; it’s a losing battle,” she says. “We open-source breeders keep putting improved germplasm into the commons, but the big corporations keep taking it out.” To address this, OSSI’s tactic has a twist: It comes in the form of a simple pledge, one accepted by breeders and also by those who subsequently use the pledged seed. Breeders agree to share the results of their original work freely, with the proviso that anyone who later uses pledged seed will also agree to share any breeding results freely — making OSSI not just a commons, but a protected commons.

Other prominent OSSI breeders include Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed, and Irwin Goldman of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The first 15 companies to offer OSSI-pledged seed are Adaptive Seeds, Backyard Beans and Grains, Bountiful Gardens, Cultivariable, Family Farmers Seed Cooperative, Fedco Seeds, Fertile Valley Seeds, Fruition Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Lupine Knoll Farm, Nichols Garden Nursery, Oikos Tree Crops, Restoration Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds, and Wild Garden Seed. Available varieties now number close to 100.

Loss of diversity is a global problem, and Kloppenburg says the organization is thinking about an international version of the pledge, via a partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in India. Kloppenburg invites gardeners to do their part in helping protect our seeds from corporate control by buying OSSI seeds, and by contributing to the organization. Learn more and see a list of all pledged varieties at Open Source Seed Initiative’s website.