Will Open-Source Plants Spur Better Agriculture?

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A new initiative is looking to make better crops by freeing their germplasm from intellectual property restrictions.

By Michael White


(Photo: recphoto/Flickr)

One of the most important moments in the history of information technology occurred in 1985, when software developer Richard Stallman decided that programmers would be more innovative if they could work with software that was free of restrictive licenses. Stallman worried that one of the most important computer operating systems, UNIX, was becoming increasingly locked up with proprietary software licensing, and that this prevented people from exploring new and interesting ways of improving the system.

So Stallman and other like-minded programmers began writing completely unrestricted versions of key UNIX components. They released the components under a license that allows any user to freely run, share, or alter the software. Stallman’s initiative led to some of today’s most important and widely used software tools; and the model of unrestricted software, open to development by a community of users, has clearly been a huge success.

What if we did something like this for agriculture? That’s the thought behind the Open Source Seed Initiative, an organization founded by a group of plant breeders, farmers, and academics who are hoping to spur innovation in crop development by following the example of the programming community.

The Initiative’s executive director is Claire Luby, a plant scientist and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Luby believes that, much like software development, too many intellectual property restrictions are hindering innovation in crop development, especially since those restrictions are controlled by a handful of large companies. Together with Irwin Goldman, the chair of the board of directors (and also chair of the Horticulture Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), she recently argued in PLOS Biology that, “Proprietary restrictions on crop plants by fewer entities consolidates the control of the germplasm.” This consolidation prevents plant breeders from sharing ideas and resources and slows down the pace of innovation. To find better ways to feed the world, and to adapt our crops to climate change, we need to free the germplasm by turning to open-source seeds.

To find better ways to feed the world, and to adapt our crops to climate change, we need to free the germplasm by turning to open-source seeds.

In the era of open-source software and Creative Commons licensing, such a claim may sound obvious, but it isn’t. The purpose of at least some intellectual property restrictions — most notably, patents — is to spur innovation by giving developers financial incentives to come up with something new. But patents are supposed to involve a trade-off: In exchange for a legal (but temporary) right to exclusively control an invention, the patent holder has to reveal the details of the invention to the public. In this way, innovators can financially benefit from their ideas, and the progress of science and technology isn’t hindered by people keeping their best ideas a secret.

Luby and Goldman make the point that, when it comes to crop plants, making patented ideas public isn’t enough. To improve on someone’s prior innovation, plant breeders need more than just knowledge about an agricultural innovation — they need access to actual plants. Unlike software, you can’t build a new plant from scratch. “While plants are not knowledge per se, the interaction of humans and agricultural plants functions like a knowledge-based system,” Luby and Goldman argue.

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have shared not just their know-how, but also their seeds and cultivars with others. This has facilitated millennia of breeding experiments and a steady improvement in our crop plants. But now, broad patents and licensing agreements restrict the ability of farmers, scientists, and plant breeders to use, modify, and share existing crop strains, which means that crop innovation is largely limited to the few big companies that legally control much of the germplasm.

This is where the Open Seed Initiative comes in. Participants agree to sell or give away their plant cultivars without any licensing restrictions. The hope is that, as Luby and Goldman write, the Initiative will create “a protected commons for crop plant germplasm that fosters exchange and innovation among farmers, plant breeders, seed companies, and consumers in a viral fashion without restrictions on further breeding.”

Can it work? The open-source approach has certainly worked for software — today’s modern, innovative information technology would not exist in its current form without an enormous amount of open software underpinning it. But an open-source initiative for agriculture faces some steep challenges that don’t arise with software. Most obviously, cutting-edge plant breeding these days often requires access to high-tech genetic technology, and the knowledge to use it. This is true even for plants that aren’t genetically modified. Like the suites of development tools that help programmers create more complex and powerful software, the tools of modern genetics are integral to truly effective plant breeding programs. This means that, unlike software development, in which a handful of developers just out of college can start a competitive new company, it takes more physical resources and technical know-how to develop a new crop strain that improves upon existing ones. Government and academic scientists have access to those resources (though not as nearly as much as industry scientists), but smaller breeders generally don’t.

Another challenge for open-source agriculture is that there is no obvious reason why the larger companies would benefit from participating in an open-source initiative. Big software companies like Google and Microsoft help develop open-source software because they have a strong financial interest in ensuring interoperability — these companies want to make sure that their browsers, cloud services, email clients, and operating systems interact well with the other software out there. There are no similar incentives for an agricultural company like Monsanto to contribute to open-source crops.

Even if large companies aren’t interested, however, certain other large institutions ought to take a look at open-source plant genetics: Governments, especially ones from developing countries, could certainly benefit. These developing nations could help meet the needs of their own farmers by participating in a system of freely shared knowledge and seeds, especially one to which scientists and breeders from around the world contribute. In this way, open-source crop genetics could do for the 21st century what the Green Revolution’s Norman Borlaug did for the 20th. He helped nations across Latin America and Asia improve their agricultural yields with better crop strains.

The Open Source Seed Initiative isn’t yet poised to do this. It bills itself as “primarily an education and outreach organization,” and, unlike free distribution movements in software and digital content, the Initiative doesn’t have a legally binding license, just a pledge that seed users agree to. But if larger institutions like governments and universities are willing to be active, good-faith participants, the open-source model could potentially produce major improvements.