Skip to main content

An ‘open source’ agricultural movement takes seeds back to their roots

Fighting big agribusiness’ patents, these renegade growers want the freedom to plant

By Veronique Greenwood

Irwin Goldman has an extremely rare job: He’s one of only two public-university carrot breeders in the United States. A horticulture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Goldman does the sort of work that helped build the United States’ farming economy.

Day to day, carrot breeding looks a lot like farming: tending to rows of plants, cultivated in fields or greenhouses. But while farmers dig up the roots to sell as food, Goldman and his colleagues allow the plants to send up their lacy white flowers and then pollinate them using precisely selected pollen.

What Goldman has decided to do with some seeds from his carrots is a bit of a renegade act in the world of American agriculture — the result of a conflict between the freedom to plant and the new realities of the market economy. The seeds are released into the world bearing a tag, which states guidelines that explicitly mimic the rules of open-source software. Essentially, anyone can use them, as long as they promise not to restrict the use of descendant seeds down the line.

This idea — a concept from one of the planet’s newest industries, applied to one of its oldest — also happens to be a throwback to the way plant breeding used to work, before big agribusiness got involved. In the 19th and 20th centuries, armies of professional plant breeders like Goldman, working at public land-grant universities, improved crops in the U.S. by breeding new varieties of popular plants, such as the Rutgers tomato, a gloriously toothsome variety that once made up 60 percent of the U.S. crop, and hearty Kanred wheat, a hit in the fields of western Kansas. They released their creations into the world, for farmers to grow and for breeders to experiment with as they tried to create the next big thing.

Today, it’s different. Goldman’s old address books, from early in his 28 years as a public university plant breeder, record a lost industry. “I think there were as many as eight or 10 public cucumber breeders back in 1992, and now I think there might be one,” he says.

Large private companies, such as Syngenta and Monsanto, have stepped in to take over much of today’s crop improvement. These companies not only patent their plants, they have added fine print to some of their seed packages, restricting the use of even unpatented varieties. The fine print often prohibits farmers from breeding their plants with another variety, saving any of it to use next year for seed, or selling the seed to anyone else.

In a sense, farmers aren’t really buying the seed, they’re just renting it, says Jack Kloppenburg, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of “First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology.” Some companies will work hard to stop anyone who’s trying to do things the old way: Farmers or breeders who defy the fine print on seed packages risk finding some very insistent lawyers in nice suits knocking at their door.

These changes have shifted the landscape of breeding, as well the options available to farmers. Large companies that have bought up the small seed companies have discontinued popular varieties, said Kloppenburg, and replaced them with patented or otherwise controlled options. A company’s own priorities naturally take center stage in its breeding decisions — for instance, making a potato that is resistant to the same company’s insecticide and marketing them as compatible.

And other breeders who’d like to try something different may find that that large company owns most of the good breeding material and is not interested in sharing. “All this intellectual property has created a lot of problems for plant breeders, especially in the public sector,” says Mark Sorrells, a wheat breeder who has been a professor at Cornell since 1978.

That’s why Goldman’s tagged carrots — orange, red, white, yellow, purple, fat and thin, and everything in between — represent a powerful experiment. By sharing such seeds through a collective known as the Open Source Seed Initiative, Goldman, Kloppenburg, and the initiative’s other members are trying to keep a small portion of crop plants’ diversity available to all who want to share and share alike.

For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, breeders of crops largely adhered to a code of free exchange. The general consensus was that know-how about food was too vital to be owned. In 1930, when it became possible to legally protect ownership of some trees and ornamental plants, certain food plants were specifically excluded.

Farmers helped develop modern-day versions of many crops, from bell peppers to wheat, by saving the seeds of plants that did best and planting them the next year. Breeders cross-bred existing varieties to gradually coax into being cold-hardy wheat or particularly flavorsome tomatoes.

Then came Donald F. Jones and his hybrid corn.

In 1914, Jones, a breeder at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, discovered something nifty: If you cross certain varieties of corn, the first generation of offspring are especially large and strong. That discovery launched the hybrid corn industry and led to myriad other hybrid crops. Then, in 1956, Jones invented an easier way to breed hybrid corn — and he and an associate patented it.

“I listed all of my varieties, my life’s work as a plant breeder. It’s like watching your children all join the same battalion in the military and march off to war.”

Carol Deppe, author of “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties”

Their colleagues were horrified. Cooperation, not private profit, was the heart and soul of breeding better crops — it was a process that only flourished with the kind of traditional generosity breeders had always shown each other, they felt. The American Society of Agronomy and the Crop Science Society of America officially censured Jones and his associate, arguing that the patent jeopardized the whole endeavor.

Yet, decades later, Jones’ approach won out. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a genetically engineered bacterium could be patented — breaking from convention that shied away from patenting living things. That same year, the Bayh-Dole Act granted universities the rights to intellectual property generated using federal funds. Over time, universities began licensing their public breeders’ work to seed companies. The company could then legally control the variety, and if it bred any further improvements, it could patent the resulting plant.

Then, as mergers swept the industry, a few immense companies came to control that breeding material. The companies did not even have to patent a variety to make it impossible for smaller breeders to use. All they needed was a “bag tag,” such as the fine print on a sack of corn. If a buyer opens the bag, he or she must do what the tag says.

Breeding can be very time-consuming and expensive. Large seed companies argue that such protection is necessary for innovation in breeding to happen. If they can’t expect to profit from the work that they do, they argue, it’s not a good business decision to do it. Legally restricting who can work with a variety, then, is a way of protecting their investment.

Not everyone agrees. In Europe, patents that infringe on so-called breeders’ rights are frowned upon, and hundreds of small-to-medium-sized companies still dominate the seed industry, says Niels Louwaars, director of Plantum, the seed association in the Netherlands. “About ten years ago we had a vote: what do we think about IP, about patents?” says Louwaars. Nearly unanimously, the members felt that patents infringing on breeders’ freedom to operate would be a problem. Multinational corporations objected, but they were far outnumbered.

In this environment, the Open Source Seed Initiative, known as OSSI, was born. At a symposium, a public breeder known for his work in beans had voiced his discontent with the state of affairs. Kloppenburg got wind of it, and they emailed and chatted up like-minded breeders. Over the next few years, haltingly and with a number of schisms, they met several times.

An interesting idea bubbled up: What if breeders could take inspiration from open-source software? Unlike software with proprietary code, like Microsoft Windows, open-source software, like that in the Linux operating system, bears a license saying that anyone can use and manipulate the code to try to improve on it. The plant-breeding analogy felt apt. If a cucumber variety’s creator made it open-source instead of patenting or restricting it, then no one who wanted to use it to breed other cucumbers could ever be kept from doing so. These subsequent breeders could still profit from their work — they’d sell their improved seeds. But they wouldn’t make money from restricting their use.

In 2014, the OSSI founders created a bag tag of their own to attach to seeds. It specified that anyone could use the seeds, including for breeding, as long as their descendants were never legally restricted.  

Carol Deppe, one of the most accomplished freelance plant breeders in the U.S., followed the developments with interest. Deppe, who lives in Oregon, has a PhD in biology from Harvard and wrote the book “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties,” which launched a groundswell of small breeders. She depended on her varieties — including a rainbow assortment of beans, squash, and colorful corn — for part of her living.

Still, Deppe was skeptical of the initiative at first. Signing over her work to this new scheme, especially early on, before the tag had been developed, seemed of dubious benefit. Yet the patent situation had felt dire to her for a long time. In fact, it’s one reason she wrote her book. “I wanted to grow up an army of plant breeders outside academia,” she says.

Once the new bag tag was released, she took the leap. In early 2015, she got the paperwork required to pledge her seeds as open source.

“I basically listed all of my varieties … my life’s work as a plant breeder,” Deppe says. “When I went to sign the thing, I was shaking; my whole body was shaking.” Her signature was unreadable. She had to do it over again. “It’s like having children and watching them all join the same battalion in the military,” she said, “and march off to war.”

After Deppe and Frank Morton, a co-founder of OSSI, pledged varieties, other breeders took notice. In just five years, the number of OSSI-pledged varieties has leapt to more than 500, from Morton’s Purple Peacock broccoli and Deppe’s Fast Lady Northern Southern Pea to a riot of amaranth and spelt and even flower varieties.

University breeders are not generally free to pledge what they make to OSSI, since their employers prefer to license their work to companies. Sorrells says Cornell’s intellectual property office made an exception after suggesting he let a wheat variety of his die when it couldn’t readily find a company to license it. “After all that work, after tens of thousands of dollars to make the variety — that was terrible,” Sorrells said. Instead, he got permission to pledge the wheat variety, called Saranac, to the initiative.

Not every plant breeder finds OSSI appealing. The many breeders who work within the large seed companies see OSSI’s insistence on no legal restrictions in perpetuity as impractical. “It is difficult for many commercial maize breeders to see how such a system would incentivize private investment in plant breeding,” wrote a group of Monsanto corn breeders in a 2015 article in Plant Breeding Reviews. To them, patenting a variety is an important part of supporting further breeding.

But for many independent plant breeders and small seed companies, OSSI feels like a haven. They don’t have the resources to challenge the behemoths in court, and OSSI gives them the freedom to swap some breeding material the way they used to.

Goldman, the carrot breeder, says OSSI’s protected commons is like a national park: a resource that everyone can enjoy but cannot diminish. “It seems like a such a small tiny thing, relative to the massive global seed trade. And of course, it is. But at the same time, I think it’s a powerful idea that does resonate,” he says.

“I think for the purposes of humanity, and thinking about continuing to improve our food supply, I just can’t imagine we want to be in this situation where we can’t do more exchange,” he reflects. “It’s kind of sad.”

Published on

Veronique Greenwood's work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and many others.

Illustration by Léonard Dupond


Eat like a Martian

How to adapt astronaut diets for pandemic-era pantries

By Heather Kapplow

Feast on these words

By Schuyler Velasco