Please note that the open source seed community is a diverse and passionate group, and we may not agree on absolutely everything. We think that it is important to share the diverse voices amongst us, and sharing content does not constitute an official platform or an attempt to exclude other voices from the conversation. 

Original post published on the Seed Ambassadors Project blog in 2015.


The Seed Ambassadors Project began as a small group of Oregon-based seed stewards with the principal goal to increase the diversity of locally adapted varieties in our bioregion & disseminate this resource in order to further local food system durability worldwide. A few of us have spent several winters traveling through Europe & Asia sharing seed, collecting varieties & teaching seed saving skills. So far we have collected over 800 varieties of food plants, most of which were not available in the US when we acquired them. Adaptive Seeds naturally evolved out of The Seed Ambassadors Project as we found ourselves seeking more ways for our seeds to reach people. The Project also hosts seed swaps locally & teaches classes on seed saving, winter gardening, & locally adapted seeds. We at The Seed Ambassadors Project see locally adapted varieties as the foundation of the durable & resilient local food system that we are helping to create.


The Control of Seed and Seed Sovereignty

At Adaptive Seeds, we talk about our work of Bringing Biodiversity Back. Part of that, of course, is growing and stewarding seed and providing you with good seed stock for your own seed saving efforts. But seed work isn’t only done in the field, and preserving seed sovereignty and freedom takes more than just saving seeds. Working to keep seeds free of control mechanisms, such as patenting, is another important aspect of promoting and preserving agricultural biodiversity, as is building awareness about what seed control mechanisms exist.

We often feel like outliers in the seed world because we wish to keep seed a free, sovereign community asset that is passed down between the generations and between friends. A growing number of people share this pro-sovereignty perspective and we are excited to be part of this community. The more I think about all the different forms of seed control schemes, the more I realize that it is very strange to try to empower seed freedom. It seems like the multinational seed industry is desperately trying to put our collective inheritance into proprietary bondage for the benefit of their shareholders as quickly as possible.

You might think, “Your seeds are not free, they cost money.” So what is meant by free? Like open source software we believe seeds should be, Free as in speech, not as in beer. In a metaphorical sense I see all seed as free and what we get paid for is not the seed per say but the service of stewardship and production of a precious gift. A seed is a living organism that has intrinsic value and a long history, of which we seed stewards have only contributed a small, very recent part. We can’t own that.

The concept of seed ownership is problematic in part because it is rooted in entitlement philosophy. As humans we all have a little bit of this philosophy always under the surface. It is a trait that helps us survive in competitive situations of scarcity, but I think it is inappropriate in situations of abundance. As an overt practice it is more common in institutions and businesses (especially in regards to Intellectual Property rights), than in our personal behavior.

An Entitlement Philosophy in regards to seeds might sound like this: “I worked really hard to grow, cross, select, trial this seed and then sit around thinking. Therefore I deserve to extort payment from anyone who wants to save this seed and start from where I left off. Never mind that I didn’t start from scratch. I only added a very small part to a massive historical phenomenon. Now you must pay me to do the same because I deserve it.”

Common mechanisms for seed control

Yes, hybrids are a great way to breed good, uniform varieties quickly. But most of the value to the seed company is that you have to continually buy it from them because they have a monopoly. This monopoly is mostly what we are paying for and we are certainly paying through the nose.

These pollen sterile varieties are usually hybrids and they provide an additional level of control. Seed from these varieties cannot usually be saved and the traits from the sterile parent are “locked up” and only available to the company that produced the parents of the cross. I see cell fusion hybrids as being rather diabolical and a kind of Terminator Seed. See 2014s Rye Ramble Cell Fusion Hybrid Seed is Creepy.

PVP is the kinder, gentler seed control mechanism, making it illegal to produce the seed for sale without permission for a 20 year period. This monopoly is nicer than a SWAT team because it allows seed saving for personal use and allows for making crosses in breeding projects. I understand why many seed companies and plant breeders approve of PVPs, but I see PVPs as the “Patriot Act of Plants” leading to the “Police State of Utility Patents.”

The evil spawn of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. As originally intended patents should be for physical inventions not for living organisms. Utility patents on seed are becoming more and more common. Salanova® and multi-leaf lettuce for example, are full size heads that when cut make uniform size small leaves for salad mix. This trait is patented by Dutch seed company Rijk Zwaan (Utility Patent 6,320,104). Now no one else can breed a lettuce that does this without risking patent infringement. To dig deeper into this murky topic check out Frank Morton’s article, Plant Patents on Common Vegetables.

Trademarks grant exclusive rights over the name of a variety and are more common in the nursery business. The ubiquitous trademark is sometimes used to control seed, as with the Pico Pardal Garbanzo Bean in Spain (see description in the Adaptive Seeds Catalog). Another example is the grain Kamut®, which is an ancient variety of Khorasan wheat trademarked by Kamut International. They use the Kamut® trademark to control the quality of goods sold under the name Kamut®. For example, it must be organic. The owners of the trademark claim that anyone may use the name Kamut® free of charge if they follow the guidelines. Interesting, but I’m skeptical.

You thought these seed licenses were only for industrial farmers growing GMOs? Think again. I opened a conventional seed catalog for commercial growers recently that had Stewardship Agreements and Limited Use Licenses in the back pages of the catalog, with a signature required prior to purchase. These are equivalents to GMO seed “bag tags” (tags telling you that by opening the bag you agree to the license) and they prohibit any seed saving by the purchaser. It is Orwellian Newspeak to call this a “Stewardship Agreement,” and they are full of creepy legalistic jargon covering up a veiled threat to throw you in jail or make you pay a fine if you do not obey. What will seed companies think of next to force people into giving them more money?

Possibilities for seed sovereignty and true stewardship

We do need to make a living and I believe in paying people fair wages for productive work. But enabling seed breeders to make a living is different than an artificial state-sponsored legal mechanism to establish a monopoly on natural products and their natural propagation. A system that allows the patenting of seed (or any other seed control mechanism) relies on the theft of prior art – not only the prior art of seed stewards who came before, but also of Nature.

I believe that the breeding of seed should be paid work just like any normal job. Seed work is creative. Once this creative work is done, it should be freely released to be added and improved upon. Attribution of stewardship is something that shows respect to the seed steward, which is why we do our best to acknowledge seed stewardship in our descriptions.

A wonderful new alternative to all this seed control madness exists. Launched in April of 2014, the Open Source Seed Initiative seeks to Free the Seed with an open source licensing agreement ( Open Source Seed comes with a “bag tag” of its own, which “is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users.”

We fully support this initiative and plan on releasing all the seed we breed as open source seed. We also believe that seed bred at our public land grant universities should be licensed as Open Source, and the breeding work should be publicly funded. At this point breeding projects at public universities are partly funded through PVP-generated royalties.

There are, of course, other ways to support Free Seed. Keeping the story with the seed is an important aspect to seed freedom. If the story of seed, including its traits, have been documented, any patents on those traits can be challenged.

I encourage donating to independent public domain plant breeders to help enable their work. I am no longer in support of “so called” voluntary royalty funny-business. I think that “voluntary royalty” is a contradiction in terms. It is so much more generous and honest, with no strings attached, to simply donate to a project. This is why we give a portion of the sales of some varieties to the breeder – for us this kickback is more a way to pay it forward, to help support future breeding projects.

I hope this quick overview helps to clarify what we are up against in our struggle to Bring Biodiversity Back to our food system and to maintain seed sovereignty. We hold to our original convictions that none of our seeds ever be proprietary hybrids (F1), patented, PVP, or genetically modified (GMO). Free the Seed!

Andrew Still – Adaptive Seeds – Crawfordsville, Oregon – December 2014.

Andrew is co-founder of Adaptive Seeds and the Seed Ambassadors Project, and a board member of OSSI.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *