A collective of specialists from the US has modeled a food initiative after the concept of open-source computer programming in an attempt to increase access to high-grade seeds for poor farmers across the globe. Poor farmers, in the Global South in particular, are unable to afford high quality seeds sold by multinationals; they plant their fields with locally sourced seeds which are generally of comparatively low quality. This often results in lower crop yields with less nutritional value. The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) aims to change the international rules that limit seed exchange and to lessen the control that corporate monopolies are able to exert over global seed sales. Seed sales began in May, and have already been dispersed in 8 countries across the globe.
Inspired by open source computer programming, the Open Source Seed Initiative is led by Jack Kloppenburg and Irwin Goldman, a professor and scientist respectively, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US. Such software operates through the creation of a code that is available to be used by anyone to generate whatever they can. They can study it, modify it, or distribute it for whatever purposes they can come up with. Most of this software is regulated by legally-binding licenses that give users permission to change and profit from the code, but they aren’t allowed to patent it. Similarly, OSSI has developed 36 seed varieties of 6 crops to sell in sachets with the mandate that anything grown from these seeds is free to use, modify, and sell, but must remain free and unpatented.
The initiative began in 2011 and is comprised of numerous scientists, citizens, farmers, plant breeders, seed companies and gardeners that have banded together to support the cause. The product, a packet of “open-source seeds,” comes with a “free seed pledge” that states that the seeds can neither be patented nor legally protected. The aim is to develop a “protected commons” in which people can extend the life of their purchased seeds by reusing them, or giving the seeds to others to use as well. According to OSSI, if the seeds were available in a traditional commons, as most seeds commercially available are, people could breed them and patent their products, as we have seen giants like Monsanto and DuPont do. OSSI aims to circumvent the restrictions that multinationals have placed on seed sales and use, which could enable disadvantaged farmers the opportunity to increase their livelihoods with better quality inputs through a more sustainable farming technique.
Currently, three multinationals account for over half of global seed sales: Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta. These companies have strict limits on purchase and use of their seeds, which puts small-hold farmers in a precarious position. Under the auspices of the value of R&D, seed saving (which OSSI promotes) is banned by these and other commercial seed retailers, meaning that farmers are required to buy entirely new stocks of seed each year or face severe legal repercussions including closure of their farms and jail time* for saving, sharing, or reusing their seed, which was a common practice among farmers until recently.
What does this mean for the Global South? Individual farmers are likely unable to purchase the seeds, which go for a pricey US$25 per packet. However, it may be an option for village cooperatives, or it may serve a means of livelihood generation supported by micro-finance institutions. A more lofty aim could involve government purchases, subsidized agriculture plots for municipalities, joint public private initiatives, or purchase by NGOs or other agents involved with agriculture, livelihoods or entrepreneurship. Seeds are often of questionable quality in the Global South, and a stock of high quality seeds could translate into higher crop yields, higher market prices for better quality goods, and better health for consumers.
As more people become aware of the implications of big agribusiness, social initiatives, like OSSI, are (ahem) sprouting all over the place in an apparent backlash. Urban farming is on the rise, lobbying for GMO labeling is becoming a more mainstream movement, and edible parks and green spaces are popping up everywhere. It is unclear how far the reach of this initiative can extend, but the existence of many other initiatives akin to that of OSSI indicates that it is a priority for a large part of the population. As current intellectual property laws continue to impinge on traditional methods of farming and livelihoods (consider aboriginal plants being patented by global corporations as an example) and future laws threaten to allow plant genetic material to be “locked out of public reach,” it is important that access to food and livelihoods remain within reach, particularly for those whose access to these things is most precarious.
Where do you stand on GMOs, agribusiness, or social farming initiatives? Let us know in the comments below.
The following video is of Dr. Kloppenburg discussing the OSSI as the keynote speaker at the Seed Savers Exchange Conference last year: