Free the Seed

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Is there any source of germplasm without restrictions?

Intellectual Property (IP) surrounds almost everything in research and is increasingly important when it comes to protecting new varieties that companies produce; however, are there any downsides to IP restrictions?

When companies use IP restrictions on their newly discovered traits and varieties, it restricts access to those varieties for researchers — particularly at universities — who want to work with certain traits and varieties to complete research or even improve and build upon them.

So how can researchers exchange information without infringing on the many IP rights surrounding different seed varieties? Is there any source of germplasm without patent restrictions?

The answer: open sourced seeds.

Conceptually, open sourced seeds mean that there would be no further restrictions on seeds — no IP or patents to prevent researchers from using a variety.

That’s where the Open Sourced Seed Initiative (OSSI) steps in.

Created in 2012, OSSI is working to maintain fair and open access to plant genetic diversity worldwide to ensure the freedom of use of these resources for farmers, gardeners, breeders and communities of this and future generations.

According to OSSI, patented seeds often cannot be saved, replanted or shared by farmers and gardeners. Like open sourced software, open sourced seed would ensure that the genes in some seed wouldn’t be locked away by IP rights. OSSI likes to refer to this seed as “freed seed.”

“The idea is that people would be free to use a variety in any way that they want,” says Claire Luby, a board member of the OSSI. “The only thing that they couldn’t do is prevent people from having the same freedoms to use that variety or its derivatives.”

“30 years ago, it was easy to exchange seed with your colleagues at different universities,” Luby says. “People were more willing to share seeds that could then be incorporated it into their breeding programs.”

The OSSI outlines four Open Sourced Seed Freedoms for this and future generations to fulfill their ideals:

1. The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose.

2. The freedom to share, trade or sell seed to others.

3. The freedom to trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.

4. The freedom to select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it or use it to breed new lines and varieties.

With these guidelines, researchers and smaller seed companies could use an open sourced seed variety for their needs, but they would not be allowed to patent any new discoveries made with the open sourced variety. That way, the seed would always be open and available for new research.

“For companies working with open sourced seed, they are utilizing a different sort of business model,” Luby says. “Like public domain, you’re relinquishing control over where that variety goes and what’s done with it.”

However, just because open sourced seed is called “freed seed,” doesn’t mean its completely free seed. OSSI says that open sourced seed is free for use but isn’t always free in price.

“It’s possible for a plant breeder to receive royalties on sales of their open source variety from a seed company partner who is selling an open sourced variety, but the genetics of that variety are still available to the public,” Luby says.

Currently, there are over 400 different open sourced varieties being sold by OSSI’s seed company partners, including varieties like Oregon Plenty asparagus and Harmony Synthetic Composite corn.

Open sourced also helps to encourage and protect diversity in different varieties.

“We are hoping that open source seed encourages more people to do plant breeding in different regions,” Luby says. “In theory, breeders can adapt plant materials to their specific regions, which would provide more varieties that suit different needs. Plant breeders have released varieties through OSSI that might not have been released otherwise.

“The variety has to be something new,” Luby says. “It has to be a new variety that was bred with unrestricted parent lines or varieties.”

“Open sourced seed is currently a niche market,” Luby says. “We’ve been focused on smaller scale businesses and the organic seed sector, and we work together to address their concerns and what they’re struggling with so we can keep evolving as an organization. However, we hope OSSI will keep reaching new places.”

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