Open Source Seed — The Past Meets the Future

Jonathan Spero | Capital Press | January 8, 2016

Open-source seeds offer farmers and alternative to other types of seeds.

Not long ago, all seed was in the public domain. If you bought seeds, you owned them outright. No longer. While there have been steady improvements in yields and shipping qualities in many crops since those “good old days,” there have been losses, too. The biggest loss may be in the package of rights farmers purchase along with the seed. In recent decades the balance between the power of seed companies and the rights of those who grow out the seeds has shifted sharply against the grower.

Jonathan SperoIn 1970 the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) was passed. This law gave protection to those who bred or selected improved varieties. At the same time, it protected farmers in that it permitted brown-bagging (saving seed for on farm use) and kept the wheels of crop improvement turning by allowing use of PVP’d varieties for further breeding.

In the 1980s it became legal to patent seeds as inventions. With a patent, saving the seeds becomes a crime. Breeders are stopped from making continued improvements. Patents, intended to reward and thus foster innovation, instead become an impediment to farmers and plant breeders alike. Together with seed industry consolidation, intellectual property restrictions have led to less choices for growers. A company can buy, and remove from production, a line that might compete with its profitable line...