Breeders from the Göttingen University and Dottenfelderhof agricultural school in Bad Vilbel, Germany, have released new varieties of tomato and wheat seeds. The catch? They’re free for anyone to use, ever, as long as the products of their work remain free to use. In essence, these are open-source seeds.

Lotus seeds.

Image credits Nam Nguyen.

I think we’ve all, at one point or another, had to bump heads with the sprawling world of intelectual property and copyright licensing. That being said, I don’t think many of us imagined that licensing is a problem farmers and plant breeders also have to face — but they do. Feeling that this practice has gone beyond doing good and is actually stifling progress (both scientifically and morally in areas where food insecurity is still high,) German scientists have created new varieties of tomato and wheat plants, whose seeds are now freely available for use under an open-source license.

The move follows similar initiatives to share plant material in India and the United States, but it’s the first to actually extend the legal framework to all future descendants of the varieties.

So why would you make seeds open source? Well, the idea is that scientists and breeders can experiment with these seeds to improve the varieties or create new ones altogether without having to worry about the legal department suing them back into the stone age. And in that respect, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. According to Johannes Kotschi, an agricultural scientist who helped write the license last year, the license “says that you can use the seed in multiple ways but you are not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on this seed and all the successive developments of this seed.” Kotschi manages OpenSourceSeeds for the nonprofit Agrecol in Marburg, Germany, which announced the tomato and wheat licensing in Berlin back in April.

The open source seeds have had a very positive reception. Since their announcement, other universities, nonprofits, as well as organic breeders have expressed an interest in releasing open-source licenses for their hop, potato, and tomato varieties, and Kotschi’s tomato seeds have been in great demand.

Why open-source

For the majority of human history, seeds have, obviously, been open-source. Without any system in place to enforce copyright claim or to penalize copyright infringements in place, farmers could use and improve on any variety of plant to suit his needs. This freedom allowed for the crops we know today — those with ample yields, drought- and pest-resistance, better taste and growing times, so on. Or they just got lucky.

But in the 1930s the United States began applying patent law to plants and soon everyone was doing it — so farmers and breeders couldn’t claim a variety as their own, and even risked legal action for working with a claimed crop. The problem further deepened as a sleuth of additional measures including patents and a special intellectual property system for crops called “plant variety protection” made it into legislature. As companies merge, these patents and plant intellectual property become increasingly concentrated to an ever-smaller number of legal entities.

Some progress was done on plant variety protection, with international agreements allowing an exception from the intellectual property for research and breeding. But there’s no such system in place for patents, and scientists aren’t allowed to use patented plants for breeding or research purposes.

The Geman open-source seeds solve these problems by allowing anyone to use the varieties as long as any derivatives (offspring) remain in the common, public domain. However, there is some concern that a complete shift to an open-source system would harm innovation, as commercial breeders (who are the main source of new varieties) and universities wouldn’t be able to cash in royalties off their work. As with most areas of life, balance is key to solving the issue.

For now, governments will likely keep an eye on how the seeds impact existing systems.

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