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Open-source seeds: protecting new crops from privitisation

Open-source seeds: protecting new crops from privitisation
28 Mar
Concern about the increasing privatisation of seeds has resulted in the creation of an open-source licence to keep seeds in public hands

From the green grass of England to the tropical forests of the Amazon basin and the semi-arid plains of North Africa, when it comes to food, no one crop can suit every soil type, or withstand the challenges of climate change. It is therefore vitally important that humans seek to preserve and increase the biological diversity of crops.

In pursuit of this goal, Dr Johannes Kotschi from the Association for AgriCulture and Ecology, along with researchers from the University of Göttingen, has developed an open-source seed (OSS) licence that can be applied to new crop varieties. The OSS licence prevents seeds and their derivatives from being privatised, patented or otherwise protected in a way that would limit their sale or further modification. In doing so, it ensures that new varieties are available to everyone. Alongside the licence, the organisation OpenSourceSeeds supports breeders and seed producers who use it.

Kotschi developed the licence in response to a growing trend for the privatisation of seeds. ‘There are basically three international chemical companies who dominate the seed sector,’ he says, referring to the German company Bayer (which recently acquired Monsanto), American conglomerate DowDuPont and Syngenta, now owned by the Chinese state-owned company ChemChina. ‘This is a problem because they tend for uniformity in production and uniformity is the opposite of what’s needed to cope with the great challenges in agriculture – food security, adaptation to climate change and the transformation from chemical-based agriculture to ecological-based agriculture.’

By utilising intellectual property tools such as patents and a certificate called ‘plant variety protection’, Kotschi says these companies transfer seeds into the private domain, making breeding material inaccessible to independent breeders. As a result, innovation is stifled and biodiversity reduced; varieties that might be suitable for marginal areas, small holdings or land that is ecologically challenging to farm are rejected in favour of a few mainstays that generate big profits.

Kotschi’s alternative vision is a parallel seed sector in which seeds are freely available. He hopes this will encourage the production of varieties resistant to fungi and pests, reduce the need for chemical pesticides and lead to breeding programmes for neglected crops. ‘We want to establish a second pillar in the seed sector of commons-based seeds, which develops all the biodiversity needed and which can coexist with the private sector,’ he says. Since its introduction, the OSS licence has already been applied to new varieties of tomatoes, maize, wheat and chilli. The very first to get the licence was the ‘Sunviva’ tomato, developed by the Organic Outdoor Tomato Project, a yellow cherry tomato suited to gardens and balconies.

This was published in the March 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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