Open source comes to seeds — and, maybe, to GM?
SOMETHING NEW is coming to the seeds you plant in the US, where a group of scientists and food advocates has taken the open source model already used for software and 3D printer design and applied it to the living world.
The group has released a total of 29 new open source crop varieties that, according to a report on npr.org, is “intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely.
“Anyone receiving the seeds must pledge not to restrict their use by means of patents, licenses or any other kind of intellectual property. In fact, any future plant that’s derived from these open source seeds also has to remain freely available as well.”
THE LOSS OF SEEDS
Seed companies retain only the most profitable seed varieties and, over the course of the Twentieth Century, this has led to the loss of the less popular, less profitable seed varieties.
The trouble with patented seed, those that have had some work done on them by the seed companies and for which they have been granted intellectual property rights, is that growers, such as farmers, cannot legally harvest seed for planting a future crop. A new seed supply has to be purchased, breaking an age-old tradition among farmers and garden agriculturists. It’s the same for genetically modified (GM) seed, which remains the property of the corporation producing the seeds.
THE FUTURE OF SEEDS
Traditionally, seeds have been part of humanity’s commons — the pool of ideas and physical things whose ‘ownership’ is shared as freely available, common property, that is. There is today a trade in non-hybrid, traditional seed that are also called ‘heritage’ seed because the varieties have often been passed down through the generations.
I encountered this a few years ago when an Italian handed me some jam melon seeds that had been passed down through his family. These were used, he explained, as a defensive crop. Because children would take the watermelons from the family’s field, a perimeter of the bitter-tasting jam melon was planted around them to discourage the children who mistakenly took jam melons for watermelons. The melons are used, as their name suggests, for conversion into jam.
Through its Local Seed Networks, it’s the Seed Savers’ Network that pioneered the peer-to-peer exchange of food and other seed in Australia. Based at what I can only describe as a sort of urban block-size mini-botanical garden in the Byron Bay subtropics, Jude and Michel Fanton have devoted their lives to making traditional seed available. Traditional seeds are also available through a number of small seed companies such as Diggers Seeds in Melbourne, Green Harvest in SE Queensland, Greenpatch in Taree on the NSW mid-North Coast and others.
The open source varieties released by the scientists, and others that may follow, will be freely useable by gardeners providing they release them under the same arrangement.
OPEN SOURCE GM – a solution?
Writing in his blog, Kurzweil Accelerated Intelligence, noted technology commentator and author, Ray Kurzweil, raises the idea of getting around the intellectual property restrictions of corporate ownership of GM crops with open source, genially modified seed.
“If Monsanto is the Microsoft of food supply, perhaps the time has come for the agricultural equivalent of Linux, the open-source operating system that made computer programming a communal effort, Slate suggests”, he writes.
“GMO agriculture relies on the relatively new science of bioinformatics (a mixture of bio- and information science), which means that DNA sequences look a lot more like software code than a vegetable garden,” he quotes the online publication, Slate, as saying.
He goes on to say that GM crops increase reliance on expensive agricultural seed and herbicide and financially benefit mainly the corporations that make those products. Kurzweil says that the reputation of GM has “tanked” and is seen not as the harbinger of green agricultural technology but as genetic pollution.
Open-source GM, he writes, “is a new idea for food justice activists who have been concentrating their efforts on depleting Monsanto’s market share through consumer advocacy and political reform.”
Kurzweil’s article quotes synthetic biology expert Andrew Hessel: “Open source food crop biotech is possible and would almost certainly be a good thing. It’s unlikely to disrupt the big Ag companies in the short term, but it could see scientific communities organize and develop products that with sufficient R&D could enter the market.”
Open source GM has the potential to satisfy those food advocates who oppose GM because of corporate dominance of the food supply, but not those for whom acceptance is blocked by the cross-contamination of non-GM crops and the need of GM crops for agricultural chemical inputs, or who hold health fears about GM plants.
THE PEER-TO-PEER ELEGANCE OF OPEN SOURCE
The open source model of distributing products and other things came about to circumvent the situation in which products were someone’s intellectual property, thus limiting their availability to those who could pay licence fees.
Open source enables peer-to-peer distribution and, just as it has done for software, so it could do for seeds.
So, here’s a couple questions:
• Would you be prepared to plant open source GM crop seeds in your farm or garden?
• Would use make use of open source seed and participate in its distribution?
Let’s have your ideas in the comments below.
Plant Breeders Release First Open Source Seeds: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/04/17/303772556/plant-breeders-release-first-open-source-seeds#commentBlock
Ray Kurzweil on open source GM: http://www.kurzweilai.net/lets-make-genetically-modified-food-open-source
Slate article — Let’s Make GM Food Open Source: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/07/open_source_gmos_to_fight_climate_change_and_take_down_monsanto.single.html
Seed Savers’ Network: http://seedsavers.nethttp://seedsavers.net