Open source seeds: An agro-giant alternative


Lab technician Maria Henandez screened peppers for diseases at the Monsanto Co. pathology greenhouse in Woodland, Calif., U.S., in 2012. (Noah Berger/Bloomberg)

A group of University of Wisconsin scientists have made 29 different seed varieties available for anyone who promises not to patent them.

The Open Source Seed Initiative’s offerings read like a hipster’s grocery list: kale, quinoa, barley and a type of squash called the “Delicata Zeppelin.” It includes 14 crops with 29 seed varieties.

The project is inspired by open-source software, which can be used and altered by anyone. Users can’t copyright it or otherwise claim rights that would restrict its use.

Seeds were once traded by farmers and gardeners. Today, they are intellectual property, mostly of Monsanto, a St. Louis biotech firm that once made DDT and Agent Orange, and is now the dominant supplier of genetically modified, herbicide resistant seeds to U.S. farmers.

These days, even universities patent their new seed varieties, Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison told NPR.  Restricting access to plant genes makes it harder to do research that improves crops, which Goldman doesn’t like.

The project, which Goldman helped organize, aims to restore the practice of open sharing that was the rule among plant breeders when he entered the profession more than 20 years ago.

Monsanto, along with DuPont and Sygenta, control 53 percent of the global seed market, according to a Center for Food Safety report. Since farmers started buying genetically modified seeds in the mid-1990s, the price of soybean seeds, a major U.S. crop, has risen 325 percent.

The patents held by Monsanto mean farmers can’t save seeds and replant them the following year. Every year, they have to buy new ones.

So will the open-source initiative disrupt Monsanto’s seed market monopoly? Probably not.

Seed companies don’t have much incentive to sell open-source seeds when they can make more money selling proprietary varieties. However, Goldman told NPR that plant breeders at universities could benefit, and will likely join the project.

The real goal of the project is to get people thinking, Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison sociologist Jack Kloppenberg told NPR. “It’s kind of a biological meme, you might say: Free seed! Seed that can be used by anyone!”

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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