Open Source Seeds

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Wish books! Many of these carry seeds from small, independent producers.

Wish books! Many of these carry seeds from small, independent producers.

I admit I do tend to like going against the grain and rooting for the underdog. In this case, it’s a seed underdog. The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), a project from the University of Wisconsin, to be more specific.

Over the last 30 years or so, the idea of patenting plants and seeds has become a hot thing in the agribusiness world. If you want to corner the seed market, what better way than to patent the seeds or plants so no one else can sell them? Of course, the seeds tend to be hybrid and/or GMO varieties, they’re heavily hyped and marketed, and the agribusiness giants use a variety of pressures and tricks to displace open-pollinated and heirloom seeds with their more expensive, exclusive patented varieties.

More and more universities are getting on the patent treadmill, as it’s a way to increase their revenues (they’re doing the same thing for chemicals, drugs and medical treatments or supplies, by the way, and for the same reasons). Many ag and horticultural programs are dependent on big agribusiness and bio-tech companies for the donations that let them continue to enjoy academic luxury while they conduct the sort of research favored by their donors. This means they have a vested interest in keeping new seeds under proprietary status rather than releasing them to the general public. And by the way, those universities are often funded at least partially with taxpayer dollars, so your taxes are being used to allow universities to make money for themselves and promote the agribusiness agendas.

If this volunteer lettuce seedling in the strawberries were patented, it would be breaking the law.

If this volunteer lettuce seedling in the strawberries were patented, it would be breaking the law.

OSSI aims to change that. Rather than taking out patents, the breeders of OSSI seeds let anyone use them for any purpose they desire, as long as any subsequent seeds are also used in the same way. For you computer-geek types out there, it’s pretty much the same thing as software’s General Public License, which has kept systems like Linus in the public domain. Unlike the lengthy, complex legal licensing used for patented seeds, the OSSI pledge appears on each seed packet; you open the packet, you commit to keeping the seeds in the public domain. The pledge also applies to derivatives, so if you use an OSSI seed to create a new open-pollinated or hybrid variety, those also remain in the public domain.

Of course, if you’re growing your own open-pollinated plants already, it’s not a huge issue, but if you want something new, this is a great resource. And even if you’re growing OP plants, some are Plant Variety Protected (PVP) which is essentially the same thing; you’re not supposed to save or sell the seeds. Patents and PVPs are usually good for 20 years. Although there are a few other folks using patents and PVPs, universities, Monsanto and Seminis are the names seen most often on the USDA lists.

Seedheads for next year's calendulas.

Seedheads for next year’s calendulas.

OSSI breeders have created a pretty good cross-section of seeds, including asparagus, beans, broccoli, carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, muskmelons, peppers, spinach, squash, tomatoes and zucchini, as well as a few flowers and some grains.

Now, nobody’s tested this in court, so OSSI’s pledge may be more of a symbol than a binding legal document. What it does do, however, is offer an opportunity to educate the public, and promote biodiversity and innovation. If you buy such seeds, you can also breathe a sigh of relief that Monsanto isn’t coming after you for taking your home-grown seeds to a seed swap or selling them at the local farmer’s market.

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