Wisconsin grows initiative to save seeds

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Seeds are placed into packets for distribution. -PHOTO: Bryce Richter/University of Wisconsin-Madison

An online store opened in mid-April, in time for vegetable growers to get seeds to plant for a summer or fall harvest. What makes the store unique is that it is an outlet for the Open Source Seed Initiative, a campaign affiliated with UW-Madison and established in 2011 by plant breeders, farmers, sustainable food system advocates, educators and others concerned about the decreasing availability of non-patented seeds.

Many of the big crop plants — specifically field corn and soybeans — already are restricted through patents, licenses and other forms of intellectual property protection. So are an increasing number of vegetable, fruit and small grain seeds. Those patented seeds cannot be shared, saved or even replanted by growers in the next year.

The Center for Food Safety, a watchdog and advocacy group, says the No. 1 threat to seed biodiversity is this corporate takeover of seeds.

Seed development and distribution in the United States, until the last few decades, was largely under the purview of the public sector and augmented by hundreds of small seed-breeder businesses, which acted mainly as distributors of publicly developed seed varieties. Today 10 top companies control 65 percent of proprietary seed, according to the CFS.

And companies aggressively defend their property rights. Monsanto has sued farmers in 27 states and won more than $24 million in 72 judgments from farmers, according to CFS.

“Many public breeders don’t have the freedom to operate,” said Jack Kloppenburg, the author of First the Seed and a UW-Madison professor involved in the OSSI.

The initiative distributed its first seed packets — 29 types of organic seeds are available — on April 17. The launch occurred on the International Day of Struggle in Defense of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Seeds, which was marked with a rally on the university campus, followed by a teach-in.

Participants in the events pledged to work to keep the seeds freely available to anyone who wants them.

“These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future,” said professor Irwin Goldman, a plant breeder and UW-Madison horticulture professor involved in the effort.

Goldman, Kloppenburg and others in the OSSI took a cue from the open source software movement that provided alternatives to proprietary computer software. The seed initiative was created to ensure that the genes in at least some seeds can never be owned, patented and held as intellectual property.

Goldman has described the OSSI as something like a national park for seeds. The people’s park includes “Full Pint” barley from Oregon State University, “Midnight Lightning” zucchini from High Mowing Organic Seed Co., “Siber-Frill” kale and “Emerald Fan” lettuce from Lupine Knoll Farm, “Oranje” and “Sovereign” carrot from the University of Wisconsin, plus seeds for broccoli, celery, cress, mustard, quinoa, squash and sweet peppers.

“These seed varieties and new strains arising from them can never be owned by anyone but the public, and that is important to us as a commercial seed company with a social mission at its core,” said Tom Stearns of High Mowing.

To spread the word about the effort and to put the seeds into circulation, the OSSI is mailing packets to first lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and author Michael Pollan, who wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that “the single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”

Each packet is marked with a pledge. By opening the packet, “You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives they will also be accompanied by this pledge.”

“It creates a parallel system, a new space where breeders and farmers can share seeds,” Kloppenburg said of the initiative. “And because it applies to derivatives, it makes for an expanding pool of germplasm that any plant breeder can freely use.”

Goldman said the pledge is so short it almost reads like a haiku.

“It basically says these seeds are free to use in any way you want. They can’t be legally protected. Enjoy them.”

Seeding a movement

The pledge: “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, you will acknowledge the source of these seeds and accompany your transfer with this pledge.”

The store can be found online at www.opensourceseedinitiative.org/store. The introductory package, selling for $25, includes an assortment of 15 seed packets, including “Midnight Lightning” zucchini, “Red Ursa” kale, “Gatherer’s Gold” pepper, “Joker Lettuce” and more.