University of Wisconsin Launches Open Source Seed Initiative

A few weeks ago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison pushed forward on a program designed to counter the malicious movements of Big Ag companies like Monsanto. The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) brings farmers, researchers, scientists, and food advocates together under an Open Source Seed Pledge to keep seeds available — for free and in perpetuity — for anyone to grow, breed, or share anywhere in the world. While big staple crops like corn and soybeans are largely protected, these days, under Big Ag patents and other proprietary restraints, heirloom varieties of kale, broccoli, celery, carrots, and quinoa were among the chosen few to make the OSSI launch cut.

Professors Irwin Goldman and Jack Kloppenburg led the charge for OSSP inspired by the open source software community that has brought so much innovation to the world. But, instead of rolling out the program with a comprehensive open source license, they chose to keep things simple with a pledge so short it will be printed on the seed packets. Opening the packet binds the user to the agreement not only for those particular seeds, but for anything that comes from them, as well, which is key to the OSSI growth plan. As Kloppenburg noted, "...because it applies to derivatives, it makes for an expanding pool of germplasm that any plant breeder can freely use."

This Open Source Seed pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others’ use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives they will also be accompanied by this pledge.

Professor Goldman took some time to provide Shareable with a bit more information about the program.


Photo credit: chrismar / Foter / CC BY-NC 2.0.

How did you determine which seeds to start the program with?

We had a group of farmers and plant breeders, all of whom had been developing new varieties in their own programs. As the idea for OSSI coalesced, we each decided to introduce some of our varieties into the OSSI program. Generally, these were open-pollinated varieties that we had selected and bred over a fairly long period of time. For each of these, we had "freedom to operate" in that the germplasm was not otherwise protected or licensed. These became our first OSSI releases, and there were 36 varieties in all, from 14 different crops.

What are the plans, if any, to expand OSSI?

We believe that it will be possible to begin a nonprofit organization to continue the work of OSSI, and we have already begun that process. We think it may also be necessary and valuable to partner with seed companies, such as High Mowing Organic Seeds and Wild Garden Seeds, to develop aspects of seed production and packet filling for the OSSI project. Finally, we have had offers from others to include their germplasm in the OSSI project, and we will have to look for ways to assess our ability to expand our offerings. Ultimately, we hope to be able to have a catalog of open source varieties that can be distributed around the world. OSSI may be able to play an educational role, as well, in fostering dialogue about seed issues.

Since it's open source, can other farmers and breeders add to the portfolio?

Yes, most definitely. We don't have a mechanism yet to include these varieties in our portfolio, but we hope to develop this as part of the OSSI project.

Will work continue forward on a full-fledged license, rather than just the pledge?

It's likely that the pledge is just one of a series of open source licenses that OSSI could ultimately use. We felt that the pledge was the simplest way to launch the project, but, in time, it might be possible to include licenses that allow for new functionalities, such as royalties to breeders or maintenance of particular cultivars.

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