Farmers and breeders can now have unlimited access to high yielding seed varieties that were traditionally a preserve of big seed companies thanks to an initiative that is breaking the intellectual properties and patenting rules in seed distribution.
Today, many countries place complex international legislation on seeds, involving rules on patents and other forms of intellectual property protection. This means farmers are prohibited from harvesting seeds and using them the following season. Farmers are generally prohibited from saving seed from their crops to plant the following year, for example; new seeds must be purchased for each planting.
Seed giants like Monsanto argue that this approach encourages innovation by allowing companies to protect the investment of time and money they put into developing new plant varieties. Furthermore, the concentration of the industry into a few big players – just three companies sell more than half the seeds on the market, according to the Center for Food Safety – means that the biological diversity of crops is declining, making our food supply less likely to adapt well to climate change
Majority of Kenya’s smallholder farmers for example have been unable to access good-quality seeds developed by multinationals therefore using low-end crops harvested locally. US-based Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), has launched an initiative dubbed open-source’ seed initiative which has so far released 36 varieties of 14 food crops to poor farmers across the world.
The project’s ultimate aim is to help change the international rules that limit the exchange of seeds of crops such as carrot, kale, lettuce, broccoli and quinoa.
Looking for solutions to these concerns, OSSI drew inspiration from the open-source software movement, which creates computer code available to anyone to study, modify, or distribute. Much open-source software is regulated by legally binding licenses that give users wide latitude to alter and even commercialize the code.
To adapt the open source concept to seeds, OSSI decided to use a less formal pledge rather than a licensing system. Each packet of OSSI seeds sold will be printed with a statement that reads, in part, "By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others' use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives you will acknowledge the source of these seeds and accompany your transfer with this pledge."
“We cannot be sure that someone will not try and patent or restrict [the seeds we’ve released], but we will do our best to survey what happens to these materials as they go out into the community. “We want to restore the practice of sharing planting materials freely between breeders. That was a wonderful way to work until more than 20 years ago,” said Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder and horticulturalist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was involved in the release.
“We’re letting people know diversity is threatened,” said Jack Kloppenburg, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology. Previous interventions to have farmers unlimited access to seeds have proven successful. ‘Cooperation 88’, a potato variety released almost 30 years ago by Yunnan Normal University in China after free exchange of genetic material with the International Potato Center. She says this variety is now sown across more than 390,000 hectares in the developing world — almost twice the area covered by the United States’ leading potato variety.
Plant breeders and agricultural officers in Kenya have received the news with welcome relief arguing that this would go along way in boosting yields in the wake of failing weather patterns. “We are in communication with OSSI and have expressed interest in having our farmers access these seeds. This is because our farmers have been particularly affected by lack of access to parent seeds. This has depressed yields even as the same farmers struggle with weather changes and emergence of new diseases,” said Matu Kinyua from the Ministry of Agriculture.