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7 April 2023: Open source seeds movement

What is the open-source seeds movement?

  • The open-source seed initiative was created by plant breeders, farmers sheet companies, and sustainability advocates whose collective mission is to maintain open access to global plant genetic resources, ensuring their accessibility to all farmers, plant breeders, and communities for this generation and all to come.

What are the plant breeders’ rights and patents?

  • The advent of hybrid seeds, scientific plant breeding, and some other factors conferred developers of new varieties with so-called plant breeders’ rights and patents, particularly in the US. In this regime, rights holders could demand royalties on seeds and legally enforce IPR.
  • In some national IPR regimes, rights holders can also restrict the unauthorized use of seeds to develop new varieties. In 1994, the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) cast a global regime over plant varieties. The trade-related IPR agreement required countries to provide at least one form of intellectual property protection.
  • This consolidation of rights in the seed sector raised concerns about the freedom to innovate. Unlike the Green Revolution, which was spearheaded by public sector institutions, the genetic revolution in agriculture was led by the private sector, with seeds mostly available as hybrids or protected by strong IPRs.

How is IP protected in agriculture?

  • There are two major modes of IPR protection in agriculture: plant breeders’ rights and patents.
  • Together, they restrict farmers’ rights and the freedom to develop new varieties using germplasm from IP-protected varieties and have thus increased the number of IP-protected plant varieties.
  • The high prices of genetically modified seeds and IP claims triggered many problems and issues, including the state intervention in BT cotton seeds in India.
  • As public sector ratings declined and the private sector began to dominate the seed sector, the need for alternatives became keenly felt. This is when the success of open-source software inspired a solution in 1999.

What are open-source seeds?

  • The open-source seed initiative was created by plant breeders, farmers sheet companies, and sustainability advocates whose collective mission is to maintain open access to global plant genetic resources, ensuring their accessibility to all farmers, plant breeders, and communities for this generation and all to come.
  • It’s simply asking for a pledge that an individual won’t restrict others from using the seeds or their derivatives through patents or other means.
  • One has the freedom to use the OSSI-pledged seeds in any way one chooses; in return, the pledge is not to restrict others’ use of seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means and to include this pledge with any transfer of the seeds or their derivatives.

Are there such initiatives in India?

  • In India, the Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) in Hyderabad developed a model that included an agreement between the CSA and the recipient of the seed or germplasm. It is trying to use this approach through three farmer-producer organizations (FPOs) engaged in seed production. Under India’s plant variety protection and farmers rights act of 2001, farmers can register their varieties if they meet certain conditions and have the right to reuse, replant, and exchange seeds. However, they can’t breed and trade in varieties protected under the act for commercial purposes.

Future Prospects:

  • One potential application of the open-source approach is to use it in farmer-led seed conservation and distribution systems. There is much traditional variety of conservation and sharing initiatives in India involving farmers.
  • Many of them focus on traditional varieties that are unique to specific regions or sites and/or have specific features. The model can also be used to promote farmer-led participatory plant breeding exercises.
  • Traditional varieties often lack uniformity and aren’t of excellent quality for seed development and breeding purposes.
  • Open-source principles can help overcome these two challenges by facilitating testing, improvisation, and adoption. All of these will ultimately be beneficial to India’s food, security, and climate resilience.
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