German plant breeders from Göttingen University and Dottenfelderhof Agricultural School are taking an idea from the playbook of software engineers: open-source seeds.

Many people are surprised to find that seeds and plants can be patented. For farmers, these patents can cause increased costs for seeds and legal issues for accidental cultivation, and for scientists, these patents can limit or even prevent continued development and research. Once a seed is patented, that variety is no longer available to other scientists for further innovation.

In the United States, the history of patenting plants, and therefore their seeds and means of reproduction, goes back to the 1930s. The first patent issued for a plant, a variety of maize, was issued in 1975. In 1996, the agrichemical company Monsanto patented the first bioengineered seed, and since then, the genetically-modified (GMO) seed market has expanded exponentially, even in the face of ethical controversies over the patenting of living things, and ownership of accidental cultivation, where seeds take root in fields where they weren’t planted.

While the U.S. Patent and Trademark office allows for the patenting of plants in certain circumstances, not all countries permit the patenting of seeds and plants. Bioengineered plants can be created to be pest-resistant and adaptable to a wider range of climatic conditions than the unmodified parent plant. Because these plants have the potential to alleviate hunger issues around the world, the ethics of patenting them is under scrutiny, particularly as licensing such seeds increases the cost of the final food products. Moreover, the patenting of seeds limits continued research and development due to the high cost of licensing, or even a prohibition against licensing for experimental purposes. Humanitarian exceptions to plant patents are sometimes issued, as in the case of “Golden Rice,” but such exemptions can be time-consuming and difficult to obtain.

Recognizing the importance of continuing research on bioengineered seeds, and the importance of building on existing knowledge in scientific endeavors, scientists in Germany have turned to a surprising solution to the problem: open-source seeds.

Open-source engineering is usually associated with software, where programmers make their code available to other programmers for improvement, distribution, and extensibility. Using the open source model for seeds enables innovation and development in a wide arena by making these seeds available to researchers in public, academic, and private sectors.

A US group, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), tried to write an open-source license in 2014 but found it impossible to gain widespread acceptance in the industry. The US has more constraints due to intellectual property rights restrictions than Europe has; thus this initiative in Germany has a better chance to succeed. Johannes Kotschi, manager of OpenSourceSeeds for the nonprofit Agrecol in Marburg, Germany, was one of the authors of the open-source license, which states that a user “…can use the seed in multiple ways but [is] not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on [it or] all the successive developments of this seed.”

Wheat and tomato seeds are already available under an open-source license, and university, nonprofit, and organic breeders are developing hops and potato open-source licenses now. A U.S. company based in Naples, New York, Fruition Seeds, is open-source licensing carrots, and in India the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture is licensing rice, wheat, and pulses.

The exact licensing provisions can be found here: www.opensourceseeds.org/licence.

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