Years Ago All Seeds Were Open Source Seeds. Many Were Also Open Pollinated, Then Came Hybrids, F1s & Seeds Were Patented. So What Are Open Source Seeds? And How Can I Obtain Open Source Seeds?

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Go back in history and seeds were all open source seeds, they didn’t belong to anyone except the person that had grown or bought them and they could do what they like with them. But today, even if you have bought seed you may be limited in wha you can do with them. Some seeds are patented and are effectively “rented” for a single growing season. We aren’t allowed to grow them again, even if we have harvested the seed. In some cases harvesting the seed wouldn’t make sense anyway as the seeds are F1 and the resulting progeny would be F2 and would not bred true. They’d be like a mongrel dog that might be lovable but could be a mix of breeds. If you want a pet that’s fine, but if you want a greyhound or other specific breed then you are going to be disappointed.

But that’s not the worse of it. Some seeds are patented and we are not allowed to save the seed and grow them a second time, regardless of whether they are F1 or not.

When Did Seeds First Get Patented?

In the USA it started in 1930 with the Plant Patent Act (PPA) when plant patenting wads first allowed. Then in 1970 the USA Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) came into law and this gave plant breeders 25 years exclusive patent rights. This applied to all their newly developed plant varieties, including sexually reproduced plants and tuber-propagated plant varieties. 

The advent of GM crops accelerated the range of seeds the there patented and some of these were developed alongside herbicides. Farmers bought seed and herbicide combinations. A prime example would be the maize varieties that could be used with glyphosate herbicide.

So far what I’ve written is largely about farming but horticulture and gardening isn’t exempt. The reason being that many new garden scale veg varieties are derived from the large scale growing of seed for commercial purposes. Gardeners effectively get the leftovers! The reason is simple. Developing new varieties of seed is very expensive and not cost effective if for what is a relatively small amateur marketplace.

Seed companies argue that it is very time consuming to produce new varieties. It can take 6-10 years and cost millions.

The Open Source Seed Backlash Against Patents Seed

Gardeners cant and will not pay excessive prices for seed that has ben developed for commercial growing. They don’t want totally uniform crops all maturing on the same day. They want their crops to mature over a few weeks or even months and be suitable for home consumption.

The outcome has been a surge of interest in heritage varieties. Varieties that have been around for decades, ended in some cases never a century. open source seed initiative. Varieties such as Moneymaker tomatoes which were first sold in 1903 and Bedfordshire Champion onions which were first sold by Suttons in 1869. Across the world there are thousands of such varieties that gardeners can grow without patent worries.

Legislation & Seed Libraries

In the UK it is illegal to sell seeds that aren’t listed on the NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) list. But it costs a lot to have the seed regularly tested to maintain listing. So many varieties that are not “economic” don’t get on to the list. That means they cannot one sold.

There are good reasons why a list needs to be maintained but many gardeners don’t accept the rationale and I’m not here to convince anyone. But what I can explain is how it’s possible to maintain seeds that aren’t on the list.

It is possible to swap seeds without them being listed. So groups of people have got together to swap seeds. This is sometimes done down the pub or at village fetes. But the bigger seed swapping events are based on membership scheme. Some are free and some charge an annual fee. Anything from £5-20 is common. The fees go towards storage, seed cleaning, etc. It’s good value.

A well known national heritage seed library is the one run by Garden Organic. They have over 800 varieties and a large membership.

The Open Source Seed Initiative

The Open Source Seed Initiative works a bit like open source software in the IT industry. People contribute but don’t own copyright to patent.

The OSSI started in the USA where it’s a non profit organisation that now has 50 plant breeders with over 500 varieties on their books. They have produced a pledge of four freedoms which makes seed free from patent and other encumbrances.

The pledge is as follows ….

  1. The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose.
  2. The freedom to share, trade, or sell seed to others.
  3. The freedom to trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.
  4. The freedom to select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties.

Open Source Seed In The UK

Though the OSSI is US based the philosophy is followed here in the UK. A few smaller seed companies are going down the same route. It wouldn’t be fair of me to pick out one or two and ignore the others so follow this link to a search page to discover more.

What The Seed Industry Say about Open Source Seeds

whereas some smaller seed companies are 100% behind the OSSI concept others aren’t. Here is an article from the European Seed website. It says both Yes and No but perhaps fails to sit completely on the fence.

What Are Your Seed Source & Sale Views?

I’m interested to hear your views as gardeners, allotment holders etc. Feel free to add comments below.

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