Open Source Seeds – Ask For Them

It seems like a no-brainer. Seeds are a vital resource, we need to take care of them, and make sure a robust, diverse array of seeds is available to farmers everywhere.

But nothing is obvious if there is a buck to be made. These days companies are imposing licenses on seeds, essentially “renting” seeds to farmers.  In the extreme, it is illegal to plant seeds produced by the crops you grow, because you don’t “own” them. A natural process is now being privatized. This development is problematic for many reasons, ethical, economic, and biological, which I won’t belabor here.

One response to this Is a movement to create a pool of “open source” seeds, following the analogy of open source software. The goal is to make seeds freely available for use by anyone. This does not preclude commercial use of seeds, but precludes exclusive and perpetual claims of ownership.

What does “open source” mean in the case of seeds?

There are a broad variety of open source software licenses and regimes, and the relationship between an open source license and other intellectual property rules is complicated.

Besides software such as Linux and Gnu, the open source model has been applied to various kinds of “open source hardware”, “open source science”, and “open source design” .

The bottom line is that you need to choose what achieves your goals.

For example, Creative Commons has systematized the concepts in its own array of license options (mainly for digital assets), as well as promoting the “choose what you need” approach.

With so many models, it is hardly surprising that there are different ways to implement “open source seeds”.

One approach is the “The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI)”, which works through an ethical pledge to eschew patents or other restrictive licenses. Like some open source licenses, you agree that the seed and all derivative products are covered by this pledge. Like open source software, these seeds can be bought and sold and otherwise used in commercial products and services. But they cannot be owned.

A more forceful approach is the Open Source Seeds license initiative.  This project has created a legally valid license that can be attached to seeds, imposing their version of free use. As in the case of the OSSI pledge, the license lets you create “derivative works” (e.g., improved strains), but they must be covered by the OSS license. Anything covered by OSS license is forever free.

(Philosophically, this “born free, always free” model is particularly apt for seeds, no?)

As great as these initiatives sound, it is early days still.

For one thing, these agreements are far from universally enforceable. The OSSI pledge has no legal force at all, as far as I can tell. And the OSS license is an EU thing, and probably legally tenuous in the USA and other outlaw jurisdictions.

Given that large companies have built their businesses on monopolies crafted on patented seeds and chemicals, there is a huge and powerful resistance to these strains. These companies will use their economic power to keep open source seeds out of the hands of farmers. They might even use political muscle to suppress and outlaw them. We shall see.

From the experience of open source software, we know that getting a large company or two on board would help a lot. (E.g., IBM’s nuanced support for Linux has helped keep the operating system very strong, without endangering the free use.) The maker movement has shown the desirability for libraries and markets for open exchange of DIY designs. In the case of seeds, one could imagine digital markets that would help match customers to providers through direct sales.

In any case, this is certainly something home gardeners and locavores to pay attention to. Ask for open source, plant open source, share open source.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Teh ultimate backup.)

  1. Nithin Coca, Nonprofit Creates New Open-Source License for Seeds. Sharable.May 22 2017,
  2. Open Source Seeds. Open Source Seeds. 2017,
  3. Open Source Seeds Initiative. Open Source Seeds Initiative,. 2017,

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