The issues that have stimulated the creation of OSSI are global in scope and significance. Perhaps the most visible concern is continuing consolidation in the seed industry. In the USA, Dow and DuPont are merging. ChemChina is completing a takeover of Switzerland’s Syngenta. And on Sept. 14 the German firm Bayer reached a $66 billion agreement to buy out Missouri-based Monsanto.
This turmoil at the top of the food chain has not slowed the Gene Giants from continuing to devour smaller seed companies, mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. With the saturation of most commercial seed markets in the Global North (e.g., USA, Canada, the European Union, Australia), the big players are looking to the Global South for new customers. Their target is the tens of millions of peasants and small farmers who still save, replant, share, exchange, and even sell seed. Separating those farmers from their ability to produce and reproduce their own seed is the task to which the transnational seed industry and its allies have turned their energies.
Now, they have considerable experience doing this, having succeeded so well in accomplishing the genetic dispossession of farmers in the Global North. Two strategies for achieving this objective in the Global South are of particular concern. The first is the global deployment of intellectual property rights (IPRs). So-called “plant breeders rights” (PBRs) were pioneered in Europe and subsequently adopted in the USA. Over the years they have become increasingly restrictive, but even so are now largely being superseded in the USA and the European Union (EU) by utility patents. Whereas PBRs have permitted farmers to save seed for their own use (but not sale) and allowed for the use of protected material by other breeders, patents carry neither a farmer nor a research exemption. In the USA, the seed companies have aggressively enforced patent rights, and American farmers growing maize or soy no longer even buy patented seed anymore—they now have to rent a one-time use of the seed and are legally prevented from doing anything with the seed except planting it for production of a single commercial crop.
A second strategy is distinctively European. It involves the development and elaboration of a “Common Catalog” which designates the plant varieties that are permitted to be sold. In the EU, getting a variety listed in the Common Catalog requires submission to costly and onerous administrative procedures and satisfaction of a set of agronomic and technical standards that are designed to valorize homogenous, conventional, commercial varieties, but not the often diverse, locally adapted varieties suited to organic and agroecological methods. EU regulations forbid selling seed that is not listed in the Catalog, and the requirements for listing are such that, practically speaking, farmers, gardeners, and small seed companies find it prohibitively difficult to breed and sell their own varieties. Only recently have EU regulations been slightly modified to allow—with conditions—the formerly illegal practice of simple exchange of seed between gardeners and farmers. Originally introduced as a means of assuring the quality of seed, the Common Catalog became a means for establishing and maintaining the hegemony of the seed industry.
As problematic as IPRs and the catalog approach have been for farmers of the Industrial North, deployment of such strategies have the potential for profoundly damaging the peasants and farmers of the Global South. The ability to save, replant, breed, share, exchange, and sell seed is central to the very survival—not to say the resilience and capacity to flourish—of peasant and village-based farming communities worldwide. It is through the constant processes of use, reproduction and selection that peasants and farmers maintain and elaborate a dynamic pool of agrobiodiversity that is locally adapted to changing conditions. IPRs that prevent or criminalize free use and exchange of seed act to short circuit these critical processes. Requirements that various administrative and agronomic standards be met before a seed of a crop variety can be exchanged or sold also tend to interfere with the functioning of traditional and informal seed systems. Even apparently simple demands that farmers register themselves or their varieties if they are to market or exchange seed can be serious disincentives. And wherever farmers’ own systems are impeded or eroded, space is opened for the companies.
Despite the potential for damage, the full weight of the corporate, philanthropic and state power of the Global North is being deployed to introduce IPR law and administrative regulation and restriction of seed rights to nations of the Global South. The World Trade Organization requires all member nations to offer some form of IPR for plants. In practice, too many nations of the Global South simply adopt versions of existing IPR systems rather than develop an alternative more suited to the needs of their citizens. Enormous political and financial pressures are also brought to bear through bilateral and multilateral “free trade” and aid agreements offered and imposed by the North’s hegemonic nations and by ventures between corporate, philanthropic, and government actors such as the G8’s collaborative “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.”
In the face of such challenges, a wide variety of farmers and citizens groups in all parts of the world—North and South—are organizing to fight for “seed sovereignty.” OSSI has been developing relationships with some of these organizations, and is working to understand better how the ideas and practices we have created in order to “free the seed” in the USA might be useful to others around the world, and how OSSI might learn from them.
A key partner in OSSI’s international work has been the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), headquartered in Hyderabad, India (see http://csa-india.org/). CSA’s visionary Executive Director, G.V. Ramanjaneyulu (“Ramoo”), has added open source activities to CSA’s already impressive portfolio of projects in organic farming and community development. In June, 2015, Ramoo and CSA hosted a meeting on “Open Source Seed Systems” in Hyderabad. OSSI board member Jack Kloppenburg joined representatives of prominent Indian agricultural advocacy NGOs in considering how an open source approach might be undertaken in India. CSA has subsequently developed an open source license which it intends to use in conjunction with an OSSI-like pledge.
Most recently, in July of this year OSSI was able to send three representatives—board members Jack Kloppenburg and Tom Michaels, and OSSI variety contributor and seed company partner Andrew Still (Adaptive Seeds)—to Uberlingen, Germany, for a workshop on “How to Sustain Agricultural Seeds as Commons.” This meeting was organized by the German NGO, Association for AgriCulture and Ecology (AGRECOL—see http://www.agrecol.de/?q=en/node/21) specifically to explore how to enact/implement open source seed projects around theworld. The meeting was held at Hofgut Rengoldshausen—a biodynamic farm and training center. Some 20 participants, mostly from EU countries, heard from open source projects in the USA (OSSI), Germany (AGRECOL), India (Center for Sustainable Agriculture) and Venezuela (Semillas Libres). Two days of intense discussions were followed by a third day for a public presentation to a hundred or so interested people from Germany and Switzerland. A fourth day was taken up with a visit to the Swiss seed company Sativa, and to joining the breeders/growers of Kultursaat for their annual meeting and variety trials. It was great to reconnect with Ramoo, and to hear directly from Johannes Kotschi of AGRECOL about the open source license that he has developed for use in the EU.
In October, Jack Kloppenburg travelled to Ethiopia to participate in a four-day meeting on “Open Source Seed Systems for Africa.” As a result of these meetings, OSSI is becoming a key component of an emerging, global cadre of farmers, breeders, advocates and activists who are—in their own ways and in their own places—working toward enacting open source as a means of freeing the seed.
Jack Kloppenburg is Professor Emeritus of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is on the board of OSSI and is the author of First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000 (https://www.amazon.com/First-Seed-Political-Biotechnology-Technology/dp/029919244X).