I have to admit that I feel really happy about this specific interview; I was informed about the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) several months ago, when a colleague of mine pointed me to the website of this really special initiative. I personally considered the concept of open source seeds as an obvious need for people who do not want to feel depended on patented seeds and on top of that I made a connection with the open access and open data in agriculture that I have been working on for the last years. However, it seems that openness to me focused on the secondary products of agricultural research activities and I never thought of the possibility of restricted access to plant germplasm and the options of keeping plant genetic material open – I guess I took this for granted (which unfortunately is not always the case, as you will see later on in this post).
Since then, I tried to learn as much as I could about the initiative and the people behind it so I succeeded in getting in touch with Dr. Jack Kloppenburg who seems to be exactly the person that I was looking for. Not only is he one of the founders of the initiative, but he also has a really interesting background, focused on Sociology but not limited to it, through which he obtained a different approach in this agricultural issue. Getting the responses I needed for this interview was not an easy task; Dr. Kloppenburg is one of the most active persons that I have contacted so it was really hard for both to find some time to work on the interview; however, I believe that his really detailed responses absolutely worth the time invested in this interview – so let’s get to learn more about the Open Source Seed Initiative!
Can you tell us something about yourself? What is your educational background?
Ever since I was ten years old, I wanted to be an archaeologist, and that’s what I studied as an undergraduate. But on an excavation of an Iron Age site in Ghana in 1972 I found I was more interested in the living people than the artifacts in the ground. So I did a master’s degree in anthropology. From 1976-1979 I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. It was there that I enjoyed my most transformative education – learning about farmers, agriculture, and inequality. Especially, it was in Botswana that I received a practical, political education. And I learned to love gardening. I returned to the United States to do a Ph.D. in Development Sociology. When it came time to choose a topic for a Ph.D. dissertation, I thought why not look at something concrete and dear to me: seeds! The result was published in 1988 as a book, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000.
What is your current position and research interests?
For the last thirty years I’ve been a professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, in the city of Madison, USA. For a long time my work focused on the social impacts of biotechnology and warning of the growing power of corporations in the seed and biotech sectors. A lot of my research involved analyzing the global controversy over access to and control over genetic resources, and especially the role of intellectual property rights (IPRs). But I got a bit tired of pissing and moaning about Monsanto and its analogs. I thought that I’d like to build the alternatives rather than just critiquing the bad guys. So I looked around me and found that the alternatives were already being constructed by farmers and activists. So I got deeply involved in the local/sustainable food movement. I did a lot of community organizing. I did research on the emergence of farmer-based managed grazing networks in Wisconsin’s dairy industry. And I thought and wrote about how to facilitate the emergence of a sustainable food system founded on local/regional food production, regional reinvestment of capital, local job creation, the strength of community institutions, and direct democratic participation in the local food economy.
This movement is now global, and I think the movement for “food sovereignty” is way cool and worth putting a lot of energy into. Now, after having been away from therm for so long, I am coming back to seed issues. In particular, I’m involved in trying to apply “open source” principles to the seed sector in order to counter the restrictions on access imposed by patents and other IPRs. To that end, I’ve helped found the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI).
You are one of the persons actively involved in the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI); can you please share some background information about the initiative and the need(s) that led to it?
Today, only three companies (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) account for about half of all commercial seed sales. Increasingly, patenting is used to enhance the power and control of these and similar companies over the seeds that feed the world. When seeds are patented, they cannot be saved or replanted or shared by farmers and gardeners. And because there is no standard research exemption for patented material, plant breeders at universities and small seed companies usually cannot use patented seed to create the new crop varieties that should be sustainable alternatives to the genetically narrow, conventional cultivars of the big transnationals. Although patents are the most powerful form of IPRs, most farmers in most countries face a different set of legal and bureaucratic restrictions on access to and use of seeds. Pressures on governments to implement the “breeders’ rights” provisions of UPOV ‘91 are the leading edge of the effort to control seeds globally.
OSSI was formed to combat this tendency. Inspired by the free and open source software movement that has provided alternatives to proprietary software, OSSI was created to free the seed – that is, to make sure that the genes in at least some seed can never be locked away from use by intellectual property rights. To that end, OSSI has developed an Open Source Seed Pledge that commits anyone receiving OSSI seed to keep that seed – and any derivatives bred from that seed – freely available for use by others. It is very important that the word “free” is understood to connote freedom and not price. The key point is that OSSI-designated seed is free to be used in any manner. Just as we need free speech to be able to say what needs to be said, we need free seed to be able to breed what needs to be bred!
What is the current status of OSSI (e.g. information about the network) and what are the next steps? Does OSSI raise an interest among stakeholders?
OSSI chose April 17, designated as the International Day of Struggles in Defense of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Seeds, to take action in response to the increased patenting of seeds worldwide. At a rally in Madison, USA, OSSI released 36 varieties of 14 species, from 7 plant breeders under its Open Source Seed Pledge. Among the cultivars being shared were seeds of Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled cress from Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon, Full Pint malting barley from Pat Hayes of Oregon State University, Midnight Lightning zucchini from Vermont’s High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Sovereign carrots from the University of Wisconsin’s Irwin Goldman. Most of the OSSI varieties are available as organic seed and were bred with organic growers and gardeners in mind. Sets of OSSI s free seeds were mailed to prominent decision-makers and influential individuals. OSSI is spreading the word that what the world needs is more free and open source seeds, not more patented and indentured seeds!
The response to our April 17 action was most encouraging. We received global media coverage and expressions of support from around the world. There is clearly substantial interest in the US and internationally in what OSSI is doing. The potential for advocacy is enormous. Further, in the month before we ran out of seed we received over 300 orders for OSSI’s free seed from 14 countries. The demand for, and willingness to pay for, OSSI seed was unexpected and substantial. This demand is likely not principally related to the agronomic characteristics of the seed, but to its sociopolitical content. It would appear that there is very considerable potential for supplying a market for “free seed” that is analogous to the market for “fair trade.” The implication is that carrying “free” seed in a commercial seed catalog can be attractive to small seed companies.
OSSI is now in the process of registering as a non-profit organization. OSSI is not, and will not be a seed company. Nor will it be the primary source for maintaining, providing or selling OSSI designated seed. Rather OSSI will be an organization dedicated to education and advocacy. Breeders and farmers who commit to making seed available under OSSI’s Open Source Seed Pledge and register with OSSI will be able to use OSSI’s logo and brand, and OSSI will develop media and web-based channels for connecting people to those offering “free” seed. WE are planning another released of OSSI designated seed for spring of 2015, and we welcome and solicit contact with anyone who would like to be part of that event.
What is the team behind OSSI?
The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) was established in May, 2012, by a group of public plant breeders, small seed company plant breeders, farmer-breeders, and advocates for seed sovereignty. We came together around the common goal of enhancing vigorous innovation in plant breeding by the creation of a commitment to germplasm exchange that would preserve the right to unencumbered use of shared seeds and their progeny in subsequent use. OSSI’s current board of directors includes an academic sociologist, two plant breeders at public universities, a plant breeding student, a farmer-breeder, and two representatives of prominent agricultural advocacy NGOs (one in the Global North, the other in the Global South). The board benefits from the advice and participation of some two dozen colleagues in the academic, advocacy, farming, and seed trade communities.
Can you please share some information about the OSSI network? How can one join the OSS Initiative?
While OSSI is now US-based and US-oriented, there is clearly a large and global reservoir of interest in and support for “open source seed.” We hope and intend that OSSI might facilitate development and growth of a global movement in support of free and open source seed. OSSI understands that thinking about application of open source mechanisms to seed has been going on all over the world for some time, and that conditions vary considerably by place and sociopolitics. Likely, no one approach will fit all circumstances. Interestingly, over the first three days of November I was privileged to attend a working group on “open source seed systems” that brought together representatives of a dozen NGOs, mostly from the Global South. India’s Centre for Sustainable Agriculture has already developed a plan for implementing an open source approach for managing the output of its participatory breeding program. At the end of the three day meeting, we had actually drafted a mission, vision, principles, and objectives for an international open source seed movement. We are following up on that beginning now!
How do you see things moving in terms of Open Access and Open Source in the agricultural context?
Unfortunately, the term “open source” has more than one meaning. Often, “open access” and “public domain“ and “open source” are used interchangeably to refer to a resource to which anyone has freedom of access. There is a very important difference between this meaning and how OSSI uses “open source.” It is critical to understand that the OSSI pledge is a commitment by recipients of OSSI seed that any derivative they subsequently develop by breeding with OSSI material will not have restrictions imposed on its uses by anyone to whom it is transferred. This arrangement produces a “viral” effect that, critically, enforces continued sharing as the seed and any derivatives and modifications are disseminated. Also critically, the virality of the pledge prevents appropriation by companies that would make modifications for proprietary purposes since any cultivar bred from the OSSI material is required by the pledge to be openly accessible. This feature – called “copyleft” – is what distinguishes OSSI’s version of “open source” from mere “open innovation”. Thus, cultivars developed under the OSSI pledge are released not into an open innovation/open access commons, but into a “protected commons” populated by those who agree to share but inaccessible to those who will not.
Anything else that you would like to share with us?
We at OSSI are really jazzed by the opportunities that an open source approach appears to present. We would like to cooperate and collaborate with individuals, groups and organizations that want to join us in freeing the seed for anyone who is in turn willing to share. Help us build the movement. We want to hear from you!
There’s only a little that I could say after this set of detailed and well backed up responses by Dr. Kloppenburg, whom I really want to thank from the bottom of my heart for coping out with my numerous emails and of course for taking the time to respond to my questions despite his busy schedule; I just strongly advise you to search online for even more information in case you are interested in the initiative; there’s a wealth of information about OSSI out there! An indicative example is the following presentation of OSSI at the McMillan Center of Yale University, in the context of the Yale University Agrarian Studies Program.