Open Source Seed Pledge

2014-04-16_13-05-20This week, scientists, farmers and sustainable food systems advocates will gather on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to celebrate an unusual group of honored guests: 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains that are being publicly released using a novel form of ownership agreement known as the Open Source Seed Pledge.

The pledge, which was developed through a UW-Madison-led effort known as the Open Source Seed Initiative, is designed to keep the new seeds free for all people to grow, breed and share for perpetuity, with the goal of protecting the plants from patents and other restrictions down the line.

“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,” says UW-Madison horticulture professor and plant breeder Irwin Goldman, who helped write the pledge.

Goldman will release two carrot varieties he developed-named Sovereign and Oranje in the spirit of the event-at a public ceremony Thursday’s public ceremony, which is set for 11 a.m. on the front lawn of the UW-Madison’s Microbial Sciences Building, 1550 Linden Drive.

Listen to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Interview with Dr. Goldman. 

The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) was established in 2011 by public plant breeders, farmers, non-governmental organization staff and sustainable food systems advocates from around the nation concerned about the decreasing availability of plant germplasm-seeds-for public plant breeders and farmer-breeders to work with.

Many of the seeds for our nation’s big crop plants – field corn and soybeans – are already restricted through patents, licenses and other forms of intellectual property protection. Increasingly, this is happening to vegetable, fruit and small grain seeds. Members of OSSI worry that this trend could lead to a time when there’s no longer any valuable plant germplasm available for public use.

“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.”

Irwin Goldman

“Already, many public breeders don’t have the freedom to operate. They can’t do what they want to do as often as they would like,” says Jack Kloppenburg, UW-Madison professor of community and environmental sociology and author of “First the Seed,” who has provided much of the guiding vision for the OSSI group.

Early on, inspired by the open source software community, which freely shares and collaborates to improve their products, OSSI members starting exploring how to develop open source licenses for seeds-but came upon numerous roadblocks along the way.

This spring, eager to get things moving forward again, Goldman and Kloppenburg convinced many in the group to embrace the simplest option they had discussed: the Open Source Seed Pledge.

Unlike the comprehensive open source licenses the OSSI group originally tried to develop, the pledge is very concise. It’s so short it will be printed on all OSSI seed packets.

“It’s almost like a haiku,” says Goldman. “It basically says these seeds are free to use in any way you want. They can’t be legally protected. Enjoy them.”

By opening the packet, a person signals their commitment to keep those seeds-and any future plant derivatives bred using them-in the public domain.

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

Even with the new pledge available, Goldman, who breeds beets, carrots and onions, still plans to license many of his new varieties the traditional way through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation(WARF), the patenting and licensing arm of the UW-Madison, which has been supportive of his interest in open source seeds. It depends on the situation, he notes.

If Goldman develops a new variety that he’d like to see large seed companies incorporate into their breeding programs-for instance, a new carrot with improved disease resistance-he’ll most likely work with WARF to release the seeds using a traditional license.

But Goldman is thrilled that he now has an alternative option, for when he wants to share new varieties with fellow public plant breeders-or small seed companies.

“There are economic opportunities here,” he notes. “You can sell these open source seeds just like you’d sell any other seeds. The difference is that the recipients can actually do stuff with them, which is kind of fun.”

Because the Open Source Seed Pledge has not been tested, it’s unclear what its legacy may be. For now, OSSI members are enjoying their recent accomplishments and hoping for the best.

“Who knows what will happen, but even if the pledge does nothing more than help raise awareness about what’s going on with seeds, that’s progress,” says Goldman.

And the group hopes for much more.

Some would like to finish the job of developing a more comprehensive open source license for seeds. Others want to bring international partners on board.

“This is the birth of a movement,” says Kloppenburg. “Open source means sharing, and shared seed can be the foundation of a more sustainable and more just food system.”

Jim Nienhuis, Sowing Seeds of Hope

NienhuisJim Nienhuis, a CALS professor of horticulture, spends a lot of time conducting research in Central America, a place he has cared about deeply since serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s. He’s never stopped thinking about how to address the region’s most pressing problems. Among them: the striking number of single mothers among the rural poor.

Often, too, they have small parcels of land—and thus a means of support by intensively growing vegetables both to sell at local markets and to feed their families. Women’s agricultural cooperatives—groups that allow these farmers to share resources and experience, ranging from shared tools to increased bargaining power at the market—were formed to help them in those efforts.

The problem: quality seeds are often beyond their means. Multinational seed companies looking to make a profit prefer to sell to large-scale producers—and at up to 15 cents per seed, women hoping to grow crops for market simply cannot afford them. And inexpensive local seeds are highly susceptible to plant diseases that substantially decrease yields.

That’s where Nienhuis could help.

With funding from USAID, three years ago he began a program called “Seeds of Hope” to teach women in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to raise their own seeds. As a plant breeder, Nienhuis helped develop open-pollinated varieties of disease-resistant tomatoes and peppers that women could save from their own crops and replant the following year.

The program is making a difference. “The women have really liked the new seed varieties for their rapid growth and high demand in the market,” says Doris Hernandez of CARE El Salvador, who works with the women. Each year Nienhuis conducts at least one training program in Central America that brings all the women together. And each year the program brings the women to the CALS campus. Workshops have covered everything from small business management and greenhouse production to business technology and seed storage.

Last summer, for example, they learned how to better save seeds with clay “drying beads” that are mixed with seeds to absorb moisture. In humid Central America, their use means much higher rates of unspoiled seed for the next planting season. Seeds of Hope supplied beads to each cooperative.

Having access to seeds and training has boosted the women’s confidence. Not only do they raise and sell vegetables, they have taken their businesses in new directions. Many of them, for example, now raise seedlings on an increasingly large scale to sell to other local farmers’ cooperatives.

“They continue to surprise me with their ingenuity,” says Nienhuis. With the new skills and international networks they have developed from Seeds of Hope, women’s cooperatives scattered across Central America are positioned for growing success.

Source:  Grow: Wisconsin’s Magazine for the Life Sciences Cathy Day, author.

Jiming Jiang winner of Vilas Associates Competition

Jiming Jiang, Professor of Horticulture, has been announced as one of 26 faculty winners of the Vilas Associates IMG_1287Competition.

The Vilas Associates Competition recognizes new and ongoing research of the highest quality and significance. Recipients are chosen competitively by the divisional Graduate School Research Committees on the basis of a detailed proposal.

The competition is open to tenure-track and tenured faculty, from the assistant professor level to professors within 20 years of their tenure date. Winners receive up to two-ninths of research salary support (including the associated fringe costs) for both summers 2014 and 2015, as well as a $12,500 flexible research fund in each of the two fiscal years. Faculty paid on an annual basis are not eligible for the summer salary support but are eligible for the flexible fund portion of this award.

 

Collaborating for flavor

A group of chefs, farmers and UW plant breeders gathered recently at Madison’s L’Étoile restaurant to discuss opportunities for collaboration on flavor for local food systems, reports Julie Dawson, who joined CALS last summer as assistant professor of horticulture and Extension urban agriculture specialist. The discussion included strategies for finding varieties with unique qualities and the best way to get these to farmers and chefs. One idea is to expand the vegetable demonstration gardens at the West Madison ag research station to showcase  promising new varieties of different crops and to host field days and tastings for interested chefs and farmers.  Read more here.