A few years back, Carol Deppe, a retired geneticist and plant breeder, started selling and giving away seeds as an act of revolt.
Deppe, like gardeners and farmers around the country, had been accustomed to saving the seeds from her garden crops at the end of the harvest season to plant the following spring. But a growing percent of commercially available seeds had begun to be sold as hybrids, meaning they were bred to grow well and produce high yields for a single season. So saving the seeds was pointless because the next generation was genetically unstable, and wouldn’t produce the same results. (In other words, if you want to grow, say, Sun-Gold hybrid tomatoes, you’d have to go back to a seed company or nursery to buy them each spring.)
After hybridization came more explicit patents—some visible to the end user and some not. “So many varieties were coming out in vegetable seed catalogues with trademarks and other protective symbols on them,” Deppe recalls.
It was bad for gardeners, she adds, but even worse for farmers. “One thing that makes small farms viable is keeping the cost down. And that means saving seeds and growing seed crops to sell to your neighbors—or developing new varieties that do especially well in your region or on your farm. That’s all part of where resilience comes from; and you can’t do any of those things with patented seeds,” she says.
In response to these shifts, Deppe wrote a book called Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties in 1993, and started her own small vegetable seed company, Fertile Valley Seeds. At first, her plan worked; she heard from hundreds of readers and customers who were energized about saving and breeding their own seeds. But there was one problem; large seed companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta were also free to use and adapt the seeds.
“The ‘Gene Giants’ could take the germplasm we released as public domain varieties and have complete access to it, and they could use it in breeding their own proprietary varieties,” says Deppe, who realized she hadn’t solved the problem of seed privatization after all.
Then, a few years ago, Deppe signed on with Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). Now, the seeds she sells online come with a simple but important pledge: “You have the freedom to use these … seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.”
Deppe is one of 36 plant breeders who have released nearly 400 varieties of seeds through OSSI. Founded in 2012 by a group of plant breeders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who were inspired by the open source software movement, OSSI is a tiny project with enormous potential for growth. And the initiative is a direct response to the fact that many of the world’s crop varieties are being developed, patented, and sold by the Big Six seed and chemical companies.
Now, the stakes are even higher for Deppe and other open source breeders as five of the Big Six are likely to merge into just 3 very powerful seed and chemical giants. Earlier this month, the European Union approved ChemChina’s $43 billion takeover of Syngenta. A merger between Bayer and Monsanto and another between Dow Chemical and DuPont could be soon to follow. The resulting three companies would own more than half of the world’s seed supply.
“The real power of the Gene Giants comes when they can’t just prevent you from growing seeds, but when there isn’t any other seed available,” says Deppe.
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Seed Money for Seed Breeding
Most plant breeding used to take place in the university setting, particularly at Land Grant Universities,which are publicly funded agricultural and technical educational institutions. Now, in many cases, those universities’ influence on the marketplace have been overshadowed by the big seed companies.
As a result, according to a 2014 report from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the U.S. has lost over a third of its public plant-breeding programs in the last 20 years, and the number of public seed breeders continues to decline. For example, “there are only five public corn breeders left, down from a peak of 25 in the 1960s,” according to the report’s authors.
University seed research is also often tied up by intellectual property restrictions. Under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, all inventions that come out of universities must go through designated technology transfer offices. so academic breeders don’t often retain the rights to the seeds they breed. In addition, Deppe notes that, “University plant breeders are increasingly having trouble getting access to the germplasm they need to breed new varieties.”
Claire Luby, a plant breeder and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the executive director of OSSI. She has spent years breeding seeds and studying intellectual property rights, and has released eight open-source carrot varieties through OSSI. Luby says that around a third of all carrot germplasm is private. And while it’s tough to say exactly how much publicly available, unpatented seed exists outside OSSI, the overall trend is alarming.
For one, says Luby, food security is at risk. “Having so few people making decisions about what biodiversity is planted on the agricultural landscape is scary. We’ve been shown that when many people rely on too narrow a germplasm pool, we know the risk of [plant] disease is much higher.”
In response, Deppe, who is on the board of OSSI, says the group wants “to create a protected commons in which at least a substantial part of all the germplasm needed to create new seed crops is kept available for everyone’s use.”
OSSI co-founder Irwin Goldman and his team at University of Wisconsin-Madison select the best roots for replanting to produce seed for open source carrot varieties. Photo: Claire Luby
A New Way to Share Seeds
When a plant breeder wants to release seeds through OSSI, the variety—and the breeding process behind it—is reviewed by a committee of scientists and breeders. If it passes muster, the seeds can then be added to the list on OSSI’s website, where visitors can search using crop, breeder name, and organic certification status. The list also includes links to the small companies and organizations that carry the seeds.
OSSI started with a more formal license, but, Luby says, “it was eight pages long and really impractical for actually attaching to a seed pack.” So the group moved to a pledge. And while it’s unclear how legally binding the pledge would be in a court of law, Luby says so far simplicity has been its strong suit. “It has allowed for people to use it on this kind of moral or ethical plane and build a community around open source seed,” she says.
Deppe contends that the pledge is “as legally binding as the ‘bag tag’ licenses that companies like Monsanto use on their seeds—or those agreements you click on when you buy software.”
Breeding for Resiliency and Flavor
Around 90 percent of the seeds OSSI has released have been bred for organic systems—mainly because most other commercial seeds are not. This gap has become increasing evident in recent year, says Deppe, as commercial breeders develop plants for systems that require significant inputs of pesticides and fertilizers to function.
Breeding for organics, on the other hand, might mean that in the selection process, a plant breeder would choose to keep plants that are more innately resistant to disease or more competitive with weeds—or plants that come up faster, beating weeds to the punch.
“Big seed companies breed their values into the seeds, for example, ‘herbicides are good for you, and yield is most important,’” says Deppe. “The values I breed into my varieties are exactly the opposite. The corn has to taste really delicious by itself. It doesn’t have to be shipped to a factory and loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. Then crop yield is second, and the agricultural health of the farm also matters profoundly.”
But while organic systems are an important piece of the work, Luby wants to see OSSI reach a wider audience. She says she hopes that OSSI can help create a big, “decentralized plant breeding network” that is not limited to any one approach.
Breeding a Network
Craig LeHoullier, author of the book Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, an OSSI breeder, and the co-founder of a volunteer breeding effort called the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, has the network part of that equation down pat.
When LeHoullier and his wife Susan sold tomato starts at their local farmers’ market in Raleigh, North Carolina, they were constantly asked about varieties that grow well in small spaces. But the only “dwarf” or smaller tomato variety that existed at the time didn’t make great-tasting tomatoes.
So LeHoullier took the request to heart and started searching for a solution. When he met Australia-based Patrina Nuske Small on a gardening forum, they set about recruiting volunteer gardeners all over the world to help them breed tasty dwarf tomato varieties modeled after popular heirloom varieties. The hope was to reach people who didn’t have access to a farm or garden plot.
It generally takes around 8 to 10 growing seasons before a newly bred seed is considered “stable,” but LeHoullier and Small figured out a clever work-around. “Patrina assembled a team in the Southern hemisphere because we thought, ‘well this is great because while we’re having Christmas dinner, they’re gardening.’ If we can work this we can take what would be a 10-year tomato and breed it five years.”
They were right. Eleven years—and 320 volunteer gardeners from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania—later, the project has released 68 non-hybrid varieties in seed catalogs. Varieties like Dwarf Emerald Giant and Tasmanian Chocolate. And, since 2015, all the varieties come with OSSI’s open source pledge.
“None of us are botanists, and we did it this way so that we could all learn about tomato genetics and learn about what was dominant, what was recessive, and what colors were possible,” says LeHoullier. As a reward for breeding a new variety, he says, the breeder gets the honor of naming the new tomato. (Family members’ names are a popular convention, as you might imagine.)
Once the seeds are stable, the project donates them to small companies like Tomato Growers Supply Company, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Sandhill Preservation, and Victory Seeds, which focus exclusively on non-hybrid or heirloom varieties.
LeHoullier wanted to support these companies precisely because they don’t get the guaranteed repeat customers that come with hybrid varieties. Unlike the makers of Sun Gold tomatoes, “These seed companies have to rely on the fact that because people like the company they’ll go back and try other things from them. It’s a different way to build a business,” says LeHoullier. And consequently, “they need a leg up so they can stay in business and stay competitive.”
In addition to supporting breeders, farmers, and gardeners looking to revitalize the public seed sector, OSSI also has nascent plans to reach consumers with messages about where their seeds come from. The initiative is working to foster relationships with organizations and businesses that use, sell, or process the produce grown from OSSI-pledged seed as “food partners.”
For instance, California-based grocer Good Earth Natural Foods has a project in the works where it arranges for local farmers to grow OSSI varieties, and then markets the final product using the group’s logo and outreach materials. OSSI’s Clare Luby says she’s hoping to establish more of these types of partnerships, even if she realizes that seed-related labels might be a leap for most consumers.
“If they’re going to a grocery store or farmers’ market, most people are not thinking about seed, let alone where that seed was bred, who was doing the breeding, or whether there were restrictions on it. So it’s a challenge to figure out how to message that,” says Luby. But, she adds, simply encouraging people to consider “what kinds of companies [they] want to be supporting” can be good start.
For now, Luby has her hands full. In addition to responding to the growing interest in open source seeds stateside, OSSI is working with several groups looking to develop similar pledges outside the U.S.
Meanwhile, with spring in full swing, farmers and gardeners everywhere are returning to the open source vegetable seeds they saved last fall. Some are sharing them. Other are using them to breed new varieties in hopes of expanding the gene pool that will shape the fruits and vegetables of tomorrow.
Top image caption: ‘Homestead Rainbow Grex’ squash selections bred by Carol Deppe. Photo: Carol Deppe.
This story was produced in partnership with ITVS.