“Open Source” Seeds for All

A new form of ownership agreement keeps new plant varieties free for all

Scientists, farmers and sustainable food systems advocates recently celebrated the release of 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale and other vegetables and grains that have something unusual in common: a new form of ownership agreement known as the Open Source Seed Pledge.

The pledge, developed through a nationwide effort called 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.

CALS professors Irwin Goldman (horticulture) and Jack Kloppenburg (community and environmental sociology) have been leaders in the initiative, which arose in response to 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 and licenses. Increasingly this is happening to vegetable, fruit and small grain seeds.

Goldman, who breeds beets, carrots and onions, still plans to license many of his new varieties as usual through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which has been supportive of his interest in open source seeds. But he’s pleased he now has an alternative for when he wants to share new varieties with fellow public plant breeders or small seed companies.

“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,” he says.