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.