Seed Commons

by Liam Barrett

Seeds are, perhaps, the most abundant natural resource on the planet. One Russian thistle plant produces 250,000 seeds. Unlike wind, water and sun, seeds are also the only renewable resource whose reproduction we humans can influence. Indeed, we have had a direct relationship with seeds for as long as humans have been cultivating crops, about 10,000 years. This fact makes seeds, perhaps, one of the oldest commons that humans have organised to share with each other.

Yet, the idea of seeds as a commons has been rapidly erased by the industrialisation, commodification, and commercialisation of our relationships to seeds and seeds themselves. Whereas in the late 19th Century commercial seed companies played a minor role in the overall trade in seeds between farmers, today, proprietary seeds account for 82% of the commercial seed market. In that same time, we have lost more than 9o% of plant genetic diversity around the world. The connection between these two trends requires that we think critically about what the future of our seed commons will look like.

The strength and resilience of our food system, dare I say society, fundamentally rests on the genetic diversity of the crops we rely on for food (and fuel, fibre and medicine). That diversity has been significantly narrowed down through the consolidation of the seed industry, the privatisation of breeding focusing on hybrids, and genetic engineering. Before the development of a commercial seed industry, most plant breeding was done on-farm or at public universities. Classical plant breeding focused on improving open-pollinated varieties through various selection techniques to create stable varieties that bred true over multiple generations.

Early in the 20th Century, seed companies’ roles (and profits) were limited, as they were essentially a middleman between universities and farmers. The development of hybrid varieties created the marketing potential to transform seeds into “products” through overcoming the biggest hurdle seed companies faced in monetising seeds: self-replication.

Open-pollinated seeds allowed farmers to save seeds each season since the varieties bred true to the previous generation. Hybrids, however, developed from two-inbred parent lines, would not reproduce genetically consistent offspring, making those seeds economically useless to farmers. Companies began privatising their germplasm and restricting access to information about their breeding practices, developing hybrids in place of open-pollinated varieties. This was the beginning of the modern commercial seed industry.

Over time, intellectual property rights provided private companies with legal protections for “newly developed” varieties. Public spending on classical plant breeding dramatically declined and increasing profits allowed seed companies to reinvest in research and the development of varieties that they could now use to secure legal rights to commodify seeds.

The result: rapid growth and consolidation of the seed industry to capitalise on these new profit generating rules. Commercial seed production grew out of infancy in the early 20th Century into a $50 billion global industry by 2013. By 2009, just 10 companies controlled 65% of the global seed market. The narrowing of genetics followed a similar pattern, where now over 75% of our food comes from just 12 plant species and five animal species.

It would seem that there is no commons left to protect.

Yet, as the future of commercial seed production continues to bend towards consolidation and genetic uniformity, there are numerous efforts to reclaim seeds as a common heritage instead of a commodity. From informal seed swaps to bioregional seed co-operatives to a global seed vault, seed conservation is happening at different scales, in different locations and, often, with different goals.

So how are we going to manage our seed commons in the future? I am convinced that just as we need diversity in our seeds to support a resilient food system, we also need a diversity of approaches to seed conservation in order to develop a sustainable and equitable seed commons future.

Open Sourcing Seeds

One creative approach to conserving seed diversity in the face of enclosure by intellectual property rights is to turn the legal restrictions of intellectual property on its head. Wisconsin-based Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), concerned with the narrowing pool of publicly available genetic resources and inspired by the open source software movement, developed an innovative license for the seed packets of a small number of seed varieties it planned to sell in 2012. Using the tool of contract law, OSSI created a license that required any user of its seeds to agree to freely allow anyone else to use those seeds, and any offspring, subject to the same license. In essence, OSSI attempted to create a protected commons for seeds, allowing sharing among those who reciprocally share and excluding those who would not.

But this was easier said than done. The group found that using tools of the legal system that served the same dominant interests OSSI was trying to counteract proved overly cumbersome. The OSSI license attached to each seed packet was seven pages long, making it impractical as a means for conveying a legally binding and readily understandable license to the recipients of the seed. Aside from the practical difficulties, using the hand of the law in enforcing requirements, even those that seek to resist enclosure, seemed to many members of OSSI too similar to the practices characteristic of the companies bent on privatisation. It became clear that “using the master’s tools” was not working.

So, in 2014, OSSI decided to abandon the legally binding licensing strategy in favour of a pledge approach. Approaching the issue from an ethical perspective, the seed pledge attached to each packet of seed sold or distributed by OSSI binds (ethically, not legally) the recipient to “not restrict others’ use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means.” Using its new pledge, OSSI currently offers 37 cultivars from 14 crop species and has plans to expand its offerings this year.

The Doomsday Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008, is the largest gene bank in the world. Built as a fail-safe to preserve copies of seeds that are maintained at regional gene banks across the globe, the vault sits within a frozen mountain in a Norwegian archipelago 900 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The seed vault is a means of last resort to ensure that in a worst-case scenario collapse of global civilisation, there will exist starting material to rebuild human society. How we get to this frozen island in that scenario is something I haven’t quite figured out. Nonetheless, this is a vitally important responsibility, and just good planning, as anyone who has lived through a natural or human-caused disaster would attest.

Indeed, the vault has received accessions from places like Syria, where civil war threatens the world’s largest collections of barley, faba bean, and lentils, staple foods for billions of people across the planet. In 2013, a rice research centre in Thailand deposited rice seeds in the vault after suffering extensive damage from flooding in 2011. As of today, the vault contains more than 850,000 seed samples of more than 5,000 varieties, by far the world’s largest repository of seeds.

Yet, the governance of the seed vault are the subject of some controversy, exposing a weakness in global efforts led by only a powerful and well-resourced few. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the three organisations tasked with managing Svalbard, is an organisation established under international law to aid in global seed conservation. It’s leadership is comprised of an Executive Board and a Donor’s Council. Membership on the Donor’s Council ranges from nations to private family foundations to global seed companies—some with clear economic incentives that contradict the expressed purposes of the Trust. In addition, membership on the Council for any non-governmental organisation is limited to those organisations that contribute at least $250,000. Who can and cannot be represented on the Council raises serious concerns of equity that many, myself included, find troubling.

While the seed vault serves a valuable purpose in conserving plant genetic resources, it cannot be the only way we protect the cultural heritage of seeds common to us all. After all, seeds are alive, and need to be planted in order to produce new seeds that continually adapt locally to global changes.

A New Chapter For The Seed Commons

One of the most exciting conservation strategies to manage our seed commons, in my opinion, is to put seeds back in the hands of the people. This is the promise and the potential of the seed library movement. Seed libraries, many of which operate from within public libraries, maintain a collection of seeds that are distributed for free to the public and shared back with the seed library to carry forward into the next season.

By making seeds available to the public, seed libraries contribute to the capacity of local communities to achieve food security, regenerate a sense of place, and increase local interdependence and resiliency. As the urbanisation of the American, and global, population continues, seed libraries also present a unique opportunity to maintain a direct connection to the knowledge and wisdom of the countryside that otherwise is being lost.

Approximately 350 seed libraries exist in the US in 48 states, and there are a total of more than 450 worldwide. As a nascent movement, seed libraries face several challenges, including legal barriers recently imposed by agricultural regulators in the United States that restrict their ability to freely give and receive locally grown and saved seeds. Seed libraries, as mostly volunteer efforts, also have the challenge of creating a sustainable model that allows them to become self-sufficient institutions. Nonetheless, the recent growth in the number of seed libraries is evidence that the model is exciting, interesting, and empowering.

Whether through pledges, banks, vaults, libraries, or other means, it is clear that seeds need safeguarding from the marketplace and the legal mechanisms that promote commodification. The tall task ahead of us requires a coordinated effort on the part of farmers, scientists, lawyers, gardeners, teachers, everyone to reclaim seeds back into the commons. Yet I am reminded that seeds inherently resist commodification-—the thistle plant produces 250,000 seeds. In fact, the seeds are on our side.

Neil Thapar is a staff attorney at Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), a nonprofit legal organisation in Oakland, California, that provides legal tools to develop just and resilient local economies. He leads the Save Seed Sharing campaign to promote people’s rights to share seeds with each other.

One of the most exciting conservation strategies to manage our seed commons, in my opinion, is to put seeds back in the hands of the people.


Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.10, Summer 2015

Written by Neil Thapar

Illustration by Liam Barrett