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The Open Source Seed Initiative

One of the biggest threats to humanity at this time is genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the business practices of the companies that create them. One of the most common GMOs are seeds, and that’s what we’re going to talk about.

First, what is a genetically modified organism? It is when the genes from one species is spliced into the genes of another organism. This is different from hybridization. Hybridization combines two different-but-compatible species and makes a third one. However, a GMO would never occur in nature. It is a human-created species.

Why go through the bother of doing this? Since we discovered the genome, humans have been trying to find ways to study it and improve it. By tinkering with the genome, scientists hope to create plants with better traits, like improved heat resistance, higher yields, and resistance to agricultural chemicals.

It sounds good on the surface, but there are a lot of ugly truths hiding beneath GMOs that must be exposed. People need to know what’s going on in our food industry, and what can be done to counter it.

Loss of Biodiversity

The biggest long-term hazard from GMOs is the loss of biodiversity. Prior to the hybridization movement of the 1920s, there were thousands of different types of vegetables. Open pollenated seeds, the way farmers have been doing it for centuries, were long adapted to local conditions. However, a hybrid plant could have extra strong vigor for one or two seasons before those traits disappeared. In the 1800s, people knew about hybrids but hated them. They called them mule seeds because they couldn’t be kept from year to year.

The seed companies, with a little help from the government, extolled the benefits of hybrid seeds, and farmers began to buy. This allowed seed companies to get rich because famers would have to come to them for more hybrid seed every year, boosting the economy. Hybrid vigor is a reality and farmers did see more yields. That combined with a surplus of nitrogen fertilizer on the market after WWII formed the foundations of the modern agricultural sector.

GMOs are an extension of this original hybridization process. The crops have grown so successful that many of the smaller seed companies have been bought out or shut down. Where there were once thousands, now only a small handful of seed types are grown every year. This creates a biodiversity problem that could affect global health if there is a disease or pest that suddenly attacks one of these species. There have been several incidents where a crop was saved because one particular variety had resistance to a disease. But with GMO seeds becoming the norm, combined with several other factors we’ll get to, there’s a good chance that we could lose big time. According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization, Approximately 90% of the crop varieties grown 100 years ago are now extinct.

Public Health

Many people are worried about the health risks of GMOs. The argument of the seed companies is that there have been so many millions of GMO meals served that it would be obvious by now if there was a significant health risk. But this is a very troublesome statement. Cigarettes were also thought of in the same manner. It wasn’t until data trends emerged comparing smokers and non-smokers that the truth of the dangers of smoking were exposed.

However, with GMOs it’s different because we have no way currently of determining which products contain GMOs and which ones do not. Food manufacturers are not required to label and they have been fighting tooth and nail to keep the government from doing so. Thus, there’s no way to conduct the same sort of studies.

Some groups have come out to say that people who regularly do consume GMOs are much more susceptible to a variety of health risks. The seed companies roundly decry these studies and claim their products are absolutely safe. It is curious why they are protesting so loudly rather than opening themselves up for testing and labeling. Don’t they have confidence in their product?

There’s a much greater danger of using GMO seed though, and that’s the intense use of pesticides and fertilizers. The GMO seeds have been bred to rely on high levels of external chemical fertilizer inputs. Unfortunately, weed seeds love the stuff too and try to grow like crazy. Thus, a wide variety of herbicides have been developed to deal with the problem, and further GMO tinkering to make sure the crops aren’t damaged by those chemicals. Even if the science of GMO safety is still up in the air, the health threats of excessive pesticide usage are well established.

Patent Law

Another major dimension in the battle of GMOs is patent law. Most of the seed companies on earth have merged with major chemical companies. This gives those companies access to genetic material for experimentation. If they manage to come up with a useful seed, then the seed is patented.

One could argue that it is fair for a company to patent a living organism. The Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that genetically modified organisms could be patented. By 1982, Monsanto created the first GM seed. Now most of the food crops we have today in the US are from GMO seeds. Around 82% of all seed used world-wide is corporate owned!

When seeds are patented, it means that farmers are unable to save seed from their crops. That would be a violation of patent rights under current law. In fact, seed bags from companies have a technology usage agreement tucked inside them that spells out what the farmer can and cannot do with the seed. The farmer doesn’t own the seed, the way it has been for millennia. Instead, farmers get a license to use the seed. This process has made the companies very rich.

The patents are even going beyond total seeds. Now there are patents for phenotypes. For instance, there’s a patent for a particular redness in a lettuce plant. If an heirloom variety has that shade, it could be slapped with a patent lawsuit.

The most visible consequence for organic farmers is seed and pollen drift. Monsanto and other corporations will sue organic farmers that have their crops pollenated by GMO crops. Farmers have lost these lawsuits. There is a small bright spot though. A group of 83 farmers managed to secure a ruling that farmers will not be held liable if less than 1% of their crop is pollenated by GMO crops. They are fighting for more protections on the grounds that the patents are invalid since they are “injurious to the well-being, good policy, or sound morals of society” and that “only technology with a beneficial societal use may be patented.” However, it’s a dangerous game. If Monsanto were to countersue all the plaintiffs, it is very likely that all of the plaintiffs would lose all their assets.

Scientists didn’t develop the foods we eat today. Individuals in their backyards and farmers did it. All that food kept our ancestors alive and kept passing them along. Now Mosanto and other GMO companies are breaking that chain through patent law and natural cross-contamination.

What is being done?

Many organic seed farmers have had to go to geographically isolated areas in order to produce locally-adapted seed. There’s no way to avoid the risks of potential cross-contamination in major farm country, especially for certain crops. According to the USDA, 94% of soy and 88% of corn in the US is grown from GMO seed.

Even many of the open-pollinated seeds that organic farmers are using had traits that were selected for modern agricultural practices. To fix the imbalance caused by all these changes, people need to gain access to a source of seed that isn’t covered by a patent, grow it locally to seed until it adapts positively, then generate large amounts of seeds and pass them around somehow. With the seed corporations having such power and resources, people need to learn how to bypass them completely.

This is actually simpler than you might imagine. Seed saving is not a particularly difficult activity once taught. This is even more important when you consider this. Even if all the US farmers threw up their hands and ditched GM seeds, there aren’t enough seed stocks of other varieties to make up the difference, especially for staple grains. That’s why it’s imperative that organic farmers learn how to grow for seed and deliver it to as many people as possible.

Enter the Open Source Seed Initiative.

But even if people save their own seeds on their own, there’s always the chance that some unscrupulous company could try to sue people who become commercially successful with those seeds. There is one group that is using the legal power of another industry to help save the seeds.

For several decades now, open source software has served as an alternative to standard software licenses. Open source software licenses give the users the opportunity to make changes to improve the product. Some even allow others to resell the resulting product. Others require that programs must remain free. From the GPL to the various Creative Commons licenses, software programmers have a wide variety of ways to distribute their code to others while protecting certain rights depending on the license.

The Open Source Seed Initiative is trying to do a similar thing but with seeds. OSI is an organization that is helping seed growers gain legal protections for their seeds so that other groups cannot claim a patent or otherwise restrict use of the seed. The OSSI pledge reads as follows:

You have the freedom to use these OSSI seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents, licenses or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds.

This means that all future seeds generated by an OSSI-registered seed will also be covered by the pledge. This pledge doesn’t prevent someone from selling seeds, but it does prevent them from putting any restrictions on their use.

Unfortunately, this is a new initiative and it hasn’t been tested in court. Instead of making a big legal document, they’ve chosen a simple pledge that they hope the courts will agree is binding. However, OSSI seeds do have some advantages. All the genes in the original seeds are in the public domain. They are open-pollinated. They have a very extensive FAQ covering many scenarios about OSSI seeds at this link.

The initiative originally came from the University of Wisconsin. They developed and released 29 varieties of seeds, and now other farmers are starting to contribute their seeds. Seeds can be received from farmers directly or through other seed companies that are agreeing to sell OSSI seed. A list of available varieties and vendors can be found at the site.

What you can do

If you have an organic garden right now and you’re growing open-pollinated seeds, learn how to save them for the next year. The process is quite easy but you’ll need to do your research for each type of crop. Then reuse them next year.

Second, start buying new seeds from farmers and seed companies that offer open sourced seeds and grow a plot solely for growing more seeds. Talk with seed farmers about how they breed their plants for better results. All farmers once had to learn how to grow their own seeds. Learn that knowledge and make it your own.

Third, educate other people about how to do it. Most people have never thought of saving their own seeds, or tried it and had them fail because they were hybrids. The more people can take back the power of their own food security by removing themselves from corporate food, the faster we can rebuild our biodiversity, our health, our and our food communities. It is up to all of us.

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