Why open source seeds could be vital for the future of food
Open source, a movement most commonly associated with tech, coding and hacking, is now becoming an increasingly important issue for food according to a recent article published on Ensia and GreenBiz. It might be somewhat surprising, for example, to learn that more than one-third of all carrot growing material has been patented and is protected by intellectual property rights (IPs). This raises a host of new challenges for small scale, independent breeders, who are responding by endorsing an “open source movement for seeds”, and could become a critical topic for those advocating a vision for a regenerative, more distributed food system with greater resilience designed in.
As well as patents on crops grown using a specific methodology, there are IPs applied to various traits including those that result in a particular taste, colour, resistance to environmental factors, pests and diseases, all of which reduces the pool of plant material available in an unpredictable climate context, where arguably the need for genetic diversity is greater than ever.
Born in the grassroots coding and tech community as a response to the increasing patents being applied to software, open source has enjoyed marked success, most notably with the Linux operating system, which outcompeted Microsoft to dominate servers, supercomputers, mobile and embedded devices during the 90s and early 2000s.
A similar reaction is evolving with smallholder farmers and plant breeders launching the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) in 2014, created to ensure that there are plant varieties and genes that remain free from IPs and available for breeders in the long-term. As part of OSSI, U.S. based breeders can commit their seeds to the programme to guarantee that the rights remain open source.
Diversity is a key issue and a number of stakeholders have expressed concerns about the impact of a shrinking gene pool on food security, while the efficiency, optimisation agenda that has dominated thinking in many sectors is generally inconsistent with the solutions found in nature, where diversity plays an important role in a resilient system.
Crucially, none of this means that the seeds can’t be sold as part of a business, but it does allow different open source breeders to cross different varieties of OSSI based materials ultimately leading to new varieties of product to be bred.
It is also a relevant development for the narrative around emerging regenerative agriculture techniques, which actively encourage biodiversity, aim to increase the fertility of soil while negating the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the erosion of topsoil through tillage farming methods. Moving away from a focus on mono-cropping and making one process or crop ultra-efficient, the principles of the regenerative farming idea suggest that multiplicity creates a healthier ecosystem and ultimately more resilient plants.