The Seed Ambassadors Project

Bringing Biodiversity Back

Tag: Rye Ramble

What is up with so-called Public Plant Breeding?

The 2018 Rye Ramble – What is up with so-called Public Plant Breeding?

Why are public plant breeders releasing most of their breeding work privately, as patented or protected? Should we still call them public breeders?

In previous Rye Rambles, I have called out the bad behavior of corporate seed companies patenting seed and breeding hybrids with new techniques that make it nearly impossible to save seeds. This year I have been thinking about my friends in the public plant breeding sector, university plant breeders that have a long history of doing good work and fighting the good fight for the public. In recent years their situation has changed and become less public plant breeding and more privatized. I get super excited when they release a new variety into the public domain. However, the reason I get excited is because it is now a rare event and these public plant breeders must fight and sacrifice for this privilege. University administrators have increasingly required the use of utility patents and Plant Variety Protection (PVP) for new releases, and/or they impose royalties and Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs). All of these tactics restrict their use. Here are a few related questions stuck in my craw.

• Why are the so-called “public” plant breeders releasing most of their breeding work privately, as patented or protected?

• Why are so-called “private” independent plant breeders releasing their varieties to the public domain?

• Should university plant breeders be called public breeders if and only if they release all their varieties to the public domain?

• Should we be called public plant breeders and they be called the private plant breeders?

When in doubt it is always good to define our terms. So let’s get this party started.

What does it mean to be public? The term comes from Latin meaning “the people as a whole.” The word when applied to public plant breeding means that the work is paid for, at least partly, with public tax dollars and the result is accessible to, or the ownership is shared by, all members of the public. This is the same idea behind public radio stations and watershed councils. Conversely, the term private means “not the people as a whole.” Simple right? Unfortunately it quickly gets complicated from here and humans like to oversimplify complicated things. I believe this is where many of our problems arise.

Who should pay for what? Who owns it? Who is entitled to what? Who deserves it? These questions are not easily answered and may not have answers. Mostly it seems like people just make up answers to these questions that suit their shallow self-interest.

University administrators will let you know that just because they get public funding doesn’t mean they have to release their products publicly. But to me this sounds like a cartel stealing a natural/cultural resource owned by “the people as a whole” and making it an asset for a private few. The real problem is that they and their corporate cousins are essentially privatizing the future, by preventing us and our descendants from having the same resources they had. With each patent they are creating little monopolies everywhere. They euphemistically call what they are doing plant breeder rights, but these so-called plant breeder rights are more like institutionalized piracy.

Red Evolution Lettuce

Red Evolution Lettuce, an Open Source Variety

Lately there have been two ping-pong ball like ideas bouncing around in my head that call into question the whole facade of the artificial ownership of seed. These ideas are contrary to the current legal status quo but they seem more true to reality.

• True intellectual private property does exist, but it only exists privately in one’s mind for as long as it stays private. Once ideas become public they are no longer private property. Your ideas are yours up until the point you share them.

• When ideas interact with pre-existing things and manifest as new things, like new varieties of seeds, they are no longer ideas. They are physical things in public. Physical things cannot be intellectual property, because only private ideas can be intellectual property.

I don’t know where these ideas take us in the end but it might be somewhere radical. One of the places it takes me is to the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). In the next few years I am going to have the privilege of working more closely with OSSI. One of my goals is to bring more independent and homestead plant breeders into the OSSI fold. I hope we grow the movement. I know there are a lot of quiet plant breeders out there that would love to share their germplasm and stories. Maybe even some stifled university (public?) plant breeders that want to dive deeper into public domain plant breeding will join us.

The Open Source Seed Initiative is not a movement, it is an exorcist.

I can only hope that ideas like these and projects like the OSSI will result in an exodus out of the current situation. Some people want to reform the current system but I have little hope that this will work. Helping to build a new voluntary system based on sharing and collaboration would be much more fun anyway. Sometimes it is best to let the old house rot and fall down. Reform movements tend to get a few things done and then either fizzle or reduce in complexity over time. Our true goal is to increase complexity over time. As Wendell Berry writes,

People in movements too readily learn to deny the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally with effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.

I am excited for the future of independent plant breeding, as we shine new light on the huge amount of sharing and collaboration that has always been present in plant breeding. OSSI is only a tool of a grassroots phenomenon and it isn’t a movement in itself but an exorcist-like idea, removing the demon of genetic piracy everywhere it goes. It is up to us to do the plant breeding and then share, share, share. OSSI encourages complexity by forbidding monopoly and it is up to all of us seed stewards to produce that complexity. We shall democratize, diversify and decentralize. Otherwise resilience will disappear, innovation will slow down and the seed economy will become stiff and fragile. We shall leave the monopolist dinosaurs of the past to fossilize into history.

One way we could describe the task ahead is by saying that we need to enlarge the consciousness and the conscience of the economy…. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for revolution, but it is also common sense.
– Wendell Berry, In Distrust of Movements (1999).

Andrew Still; November 2017

First published in the Adaptive Seeds 2018 seed catalog.  Download the catalog here…

The Control of Seed and Seed Sovereignty

Rye Ramble (from the 2015 Adaptive Seeds Catalog)

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.

Onion flowers at Adaptive Seeds

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.

Continue reading

Cell Fusion Hybrid Seed is Creepy

Cell fusion CMS is truly anti-evolutionary and is contributing dramatically to the the loss of agricultural biodiversity in the seed industry, as the genes cannot be recovered from cell fusion CMS hybrids.

What is Cell Fusion? What is a Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS) Hybrid?  Why is it Creepy?

Recently I have been asked by several farmers and seed savers to write up a little something about a technology few people know about that is becoming more and more prevalent in our food system. When I bring it up in passing everyone seems to want to know more and their first question is often, “Why have I never heard of this?”  After discussing it with many other organic farmers a question I always get is, “Is that illegal for organic farming?” I answer by saying “No, not yet at least.” And then predictably they say, “Well, it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Cell Fusion CMS Hybrd Seed

Chicory Flower

This technology has been called “cell fusion CMS” and it is used to create male-sterile breeding lines, which are then used to create many common F1 hybrid seed varieties. These hybrid varieties are found in many seed catalogs and including many hybrid cabbage, broccoli and interestingly Belgian endive among other crops.  The technology has been around for the last few decades and is sometimes called hybrid seed from protoplast fusion cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). I  have nicknamed it “transgeneric cybrid seed.”  It is a kind of a biotech revision of a naturally occurring breeding technique that now straddles the border of genetic engineering. I said revision because some cytoplasmic male sterility can occur naturally – but cell fusion CMS does not occur naturally.

Continue reading

Bringing Biodiversity Back

2013 Rye Ramble (reprinted from the Adaptive Seeds printed catalog.)


Bringing Biodiversity Back for Real, Explained…

We don’t simply write long variety descriptions because it is interesting and we don’t choose rare varieties because they are simply novel.

I feel that seeds, with the biodiversity and cultural knowledge they embody, are a doorway into the mystical realms of our reality. That sounds a little funny and I am not trying to lose you into a woo-woo made-up universe here. I am just trying to explain some reasons for why we do what we do. And predictably every year we discover more reasons for doing this seedy thing.

Frosty FennelWe write long descriptions and choose rare varieties for the sake of conservation, food security, the joy of the experience, and the encouragement from others to continue the hard work; these are all good reasons. But these reasons are like the layers of a leek stem. Every reason we give is a layer of the leek and we keep getting closer and closer to the core. One day we will get to the apical meristem and continue to peel and there will be an empty space where there was a growth point, mysteriously keeping its secrets from us. And yes, this is yet another reason we give ourselves to continue this journey, because we won’t know every reason.

So why do we write these long descriptions when other seed companies write one sentence and sometimes even get the color wrong? What it comes down to for me is that cultural knowledge about seed varieties has eroded even faster than the seed varieties themselves.

Continue reading