Perhaps you have heard the term open-source. Maybe you heard about it within the context of software and technology as the open-source movement originated within the software development community as a means to encourage innovation and knowledge sharing. As such, the open-source concept is best-known within the technological paradigm. However, the essence of open-source can be applicable across practically all fields and sectors.
At the most basic level, open-source means that a technology or process is made freely available for modification and redistribution. It is common practice for one or more individuals or groups to work together to develop and refine the technology. Such distribution and organizational structures are in contrast to presently common economic models where a single entity works to create a product or process and retains exclusive ownership of the output (although the right to use the product or process can be sold).
The characteristic of allowing participants to edit and change open-source products is also contrary to conventional production practices. In a sense, this suggests that open-source products belong not to one single entity or person but to the wider community that has contributed to the realization of that product. This organizational structure contrasts common economic standards where property rights are clearly defined (which helps to clarify the principal-agent dilemma).
Within the field of seeds and seed production, open-source refers to genetic varieties of seeds that can be freely used and modified (e.g.through cross-breeding). Likewise, the seeds are protected from privatization. The legal structures protecting open-source seeds help to redefine seed genetics as cultural heritage available to the citizens of the world. When using open-source seeds, users pledge to maintain the integrity of open-source by ensuring that the same rights extended to one user are extended to all users.
Defining such protections has become essential in an era of competition between free and collaborative innovation and an increasingly pervasive global IP (intellectual property) regime. Governance structures, especially in the so-called developed world, favor explicitly defined property rights for both physical and intellectual property.
In many cases, this would not be controversial. However, seeds and the food and fibers that they produce are a foundational component of human culture and pivotal to the health and economic well-being of many of the world’s inhabitants. The imposition of laws and governance structures defined in countries such as the United States undermines the social and cultural heritage endemic to other areas of the world. In many cases, following a decision made at some far-off summit, people were suddenly expected to pay for the seeds that are a part of their ancient cultural heritage.
Likewise, these governance structures provide an undue and unfair economic advantage to already massive corporations which further entrenches their ability to subjugate farmers throughout the world.
In turn, open-source seeds are key to reestablishing equity and fairness to so-called developing countries as they are the historical source of most of the world’s common food sources. Indigenous and local farmers selectively bred the seeds for thousands of years before they were suddenly defined as sovereign property – an outcome that is both unfair and detrimental to the protection and development of that demographic.
Farmers in so-called developed nations also benefit from the innovation and knowledge sharing that accompanies the use and propagation of open-source seeds. Moreover, they face protections from the threat of costly licensing fees or legal action linked with inadvertent cross-contamination.
In the end, the expansion of open-source seeds is a means of fighting fire with fire. Large corporations have patented seed genetic resources and use those resources as a means for amassing huge amounts of profit. Open-source seed communities also patent seed genetic resources, but they do so to protect the cultural heritage of humankind.
The use of such an approach demonstrates that interest in participatory grassroots movements aiming to protect our food system is growing. In doing so, it becomes more possible to balance private and public interests. As the movement grows, alternative frameworks for protecting intellectual property becomes possible – a step in the preservation and cultivation of sustainable and equitable food systems.
If you’re interested in learning more about or purchasing open-source seeds, check out:
- Open Source Seeds – Europe
- Open Source Seed Initiative – North America
- Aoki, K. (2008). Free seeds, not free beer: Participatory plant breeding, open source seeds, and acknowledging user innovation in agriculture. Fordham L. Rev., 77, 2275.
- Kipp, M. (2005). Software and seeds: Open source methods. First Monday, 10(9).
- Kloppenburg, J. (2010). Impeding dispossession, enabling repossession: biological open source and the recovery of seed sovereignty. Journal of agrarian change, 10(3), 367-388.
- Kotschi, J., & Wirz, J. (2015). Who pays for seeds?. Working paper. AGRECOL and Section for Agriculture Goetheanum.
- Lerner, J., & Tirole, J. (2002). Some simple economics of open source. The journal of industrial economics, 50(2), 197-234.
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