One of the topics that are of interest for Agro-Know, through our participation in various EU-funded projects like agINFRA and SemaGrow among others (such as the VOA3R project, which ended about one year ago), is open access. Open Access may refer to scientific and research data, open educational resources, governmental data, using Creative Commons licenses for the licensing of outcomes like publications, presentations and any other kind of documentation, linked open data etc. Through our participation in related events we try to keep up with updates in this context, get to know people who are also working in these fields and transfer this experience and updates to our projects and work.
This is just one side of the whole image of course; all these refer to digital content developed based on agricultural research using actual plants – but what about the plants and their seeds? How easy is it for farmers to get access to them? What is the role of patents and licensing applied to plant genetic material? We recently came across a number of initiatives which are also working in the field of opening up access to the use and reuse of seeds, making good use of the land and even facilitating the construction of open source hardware which can be used for agricultural purposes. The following paragraphs contain information collected from various sources and aim to provide a brief overview of the current status of such initiatives:
The aim of the initiative is to “chart a course for developing and releasing open source seeds”. Strongly supporting biodiversity through traditional plant breeding, the initiative was built on the fact that continued restrictions on seed posed by big companies may hinder the ability of improving crops and providing open access to genetic resources. The initiative focuses on the legal aspects of sharing seeds and aims to develop a licensing which will be applied to the seeds allowing them to be freely shared; according to the OSSI website, “by attaching a free seed pledge to packets of open source seed, these genetic resources cannot be patented or otherwise legally protected, making them essentially available in perpetuity in a protected commons“. The OSSI group includes a wide variety of stakeholders, such as scientists, citizens, plant breeders, farmers, seed companies, and gardeners. The first release of OSSI’s open source seeds, which consisted of 36 varieties of 14 different crops, took place on April 17, 2014 on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, and the first seed packets started circulating to stakeholders by mail around U.S. in early May.
The OSSI pledge is available in all seed packets distributed by the initiative:
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 they will also be accompanied by this pledge.
What is interesting is the fact that among the network there are University professors who, instead of limiting themselves in their academic tasks like research and teaching, decide to have a hands-on experience with farming and even practice plant breeding techniques. This is the case of Jim Myers, plant breeder and professor of genetics at Oregon State University, as well as one of the founders of the OSSI; you can go through the really interesting post titled “Linux for lettuce: Revolutionizing American agribusiness from the ground up, one seed at a time” by Lisa Hamilton which was published by the Virginia Quarterly Review. This post also highlights the issues raised by the patents applied to plant germplasm resources and how one may get in trouble by using patented seeds for seeding and growing vegetables…
Another similar example was the case of Claire Luby, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin some time ago; Claire’s PhD thesis was based on the “carrot-hack”, a process “for effectively “un-breeding” the American commercial carrot in order to free its genetic code for remixing”, which sounds like reverse-engineering to me, including molecular biology techniques for identifying different genes in the carrot germplasm. However, it seems that Claire got herself into trouble, as a company banned her from using its carrot germplasm, leading to a limitation of the available carrot germplasm. An interesting synopsis of this story can be found in the article titled “The Carrot Hack” by Nicola Twilley.
Peliti is a Greek, small-scale related initiative that aims to preserve Greek traditional plant varieties through the collection, preservation and sharing of their seeds. In this way, and based on the work provided by volunteers, it contributes to the enrichment of the Greek plant biodiversity and provides the opportunity to small-scale growers to use traditional Greek varieties instead of the commercially available ones. It is important that Peliti offers the seeds for free, minimizing the cost for the growers only to the delivery cost through postal service.
There are other initiatives which share common ground with OSSI, such as Shared Earth that, simply put, aims to connect land owners with gardeners and farmers. The big idea of course is to build a broad and trusting community of land owners and gardeners that yields the efficient use of land and a greener planet. In addition, HerbShare, an online, searchable map of fresh herbs in a community, is a project that aims to allow (and probably engage people in) community growing of herbs at a neighbourhood level.
It is an open project designed to bring interoperability, security, and privacy to agricultural data. The central guiding principle of OADA is that each farmer owns data generated or entered by the farmer, their employees, or by machines performing activities on their farm. In this context, OADA aims to provide the infrastructure needed, using open source software and standard protocols, for enabling the interoperability among various (and heterogeneous) agricultural data sources, focusing on the data produced by the farmers themselves.
The approach proposed by OADA exhibits similarities to the approach proposed by the agINFRA project; despite the fact that the former aims to use data produced by the producers (primary data) while the latter focuses mostly on secondary data (e.g. data produced by researchers, educators, scientists etc.), it is obvious that these two approaches can find some common ground and move forward with aspects such as the development of APIs and the exploitation of grid- and cloud-based services for enhancing the interoperability between various agricultural data sources.
The aim of the Open Source Ecology initiative is to “develop a modular, scalable platform for documenting and developing open source, libre hardware – including blueprints for both physical artifacts and for related open enterprises”. One of the main outcomes of the initiative is the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) “a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts”. The initiative is really active and engages the community through a number of Workshops.
Of course there must be several similar initiatives out there, of which we are not aware, focusing on the engagement of the community in common good practices related to sharing and growing crops the traditional way, working towards the free use, reuse and sharing of plant genetic material such as seeds and improving the characteristics of the crops using traditional methods. Through the use of open access and open source licensing, they aim to exploit the use of plant genetic material and provide solutions for the enhancement of the data interoperability at a software level or even open source hardware like tools. The outcomes can then be shared at a community level, engaging people who could not have access to small-scale plant growing.
Despite the fact that companies may have invested time and effort towards the genetic improvements of specific crop varieties, applying patents on plant genetic resources raises barriers in the free cultivation and sharing of seeds which is considered as a basic right of people to land and grow their own food. These issues are frequently further supported by the corresponding legislation both at national and at EU/US level, which prohibits the cultivation of edible plants by small-scale growers and encourages the use of commercially available plant seeds instead of the traditionally grown ones. We hope that in the next weeks we will be able to present the opinions of stakeholders from the initiatives mentioned in this post, in order to allow us have a clearer image about their status and mostly about the need(s) that led to their formation.