The Four Seed Freedoms
Fedco is proud to be among the 38 seed company partners of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), an effort by a consortium of seedsfolks, farmer-breeders, academics and others to keep as many seed varieties as possible in the public domain, unfettered by privatizing restrictions. (See my essay “In Defense of a Seed Commons” from our 2016 catalog.)
The OSSI Pledge
OSSI is signing up as many breeders and seed companies as possible to pledge to keep as many varieties free as possible. Fedco currently carries 39 OSSI-pledged varieties. We ask each buyer of these OSSI-pledged seeds to uphold this open source agreement:
You have the freedom to use these OSSI-pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this Pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.
OSSI has identified the four seed freedoms:
- The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose.
- The freedom to share, trade, or sell seed to others.
- The freedom to trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.
- The freedom to select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties.
OSSI opposes intellectual property (IP) provisions that restrict those freedoms.
Fedco’s Commitment to Transparency
and Seed Saver’s Rights
In keeping with our long tradition that began with my two-part essay “Do you know where your seed comes from?” published in our 1995 and 1996 catalogs, we now pioneer Seed Savers Rights/Transparency, a feature that came out of OSSI Board discussions. In this year’s catalog, we identify varieties with IP restrictions that we had to agree to in order to offer the seeds. Such restrictions come in at least five different forms:
- Contractual agreements with suppliers that restrict seed to one-time use and forbid seed saving, exchanging or selling saved seed, or using seed for selection or breeding purposes. These contracts restricts all four seed freedoms.
- Bag-tag agreements that come into force when we open the bag, similar to contracts that restrict seed to one-time use. Bag-tag agreements restrict all four freedoms.
- Licenses that allow us to produce proprietary seed in exchange for royalties, but forbid using it for selection and breeding purposes. These licenses restrict the fourth freedom only.
- Plant Variety Protection (PVP), a form of limited patent protection that restricts only the second freedom, allowing seed saving for own use or breeding purposes.
- Utility or trait patents restrict all four freedoms. Fedco does not knowingly sell trait- or utility-patented varieties.
Genetic engineering is not the only ethical issue in seed production. A new and disturbing trend in lettuce is the prevalence of trait- and utility-patented varieties in seed catalogs. One of our competitors listed more than one third of its lettuce varieties as utility- or trait-patented. Utility patents stand the traditional rationale for variety protection on its head. The original reason advanced in its support was to offer breeders an economic incentive to develop new varieties for agricultural improvement.
Utility patents, by extending ownership beyond individual varieties to their traits (such as heat tolerance and leaf color) that are found in nature, stultify any possible future breeding improvements by monopolizing those traits and uses that rightfully belong to the commons, cutting off any further opportunity for any other breeder to work with them. Once traits are tied up in private hands, varietal improvement comes to a halt.
You will not find any trait- or utility-patented varieties in the Fedco catalog because such patents are against our ethics. Free the seed! We encourage you to use seeds in the public domain and shun utility-patented varieties.
Software developers originated the strategy of copyleft. As opposed to traditional copyright, copyleft encourages development and modification, while stipulating that nothing derived from it may be patented or protected from others’ use in any way. Seeds as nature’s software! Click here for more information on copyleft.
Copyleft has the potential to return to free use such shared resources as our plant heritage that rightfully belong to all of us. As breeder Frank Morton proclaims, “Adaptive breeding cannot occur under a system of restrictive ownership.”
This is a work in progress, to be continued.