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“A biolinux model can be applied for the development of plant varieties, agro machinery and sharing of information and knowledge. A biolinux model . . . [is] as follows. The variety will be made available with a GPL or similar document explicitly stating rights and claims. . . . There will be no restriction on using [the variety] to develop new varieties or to experiment with but it is essential that the variety derived from this should also be available without any monopolistic claims and restrictions on further development. . . . [An] agency [could] coordinate [to bring] together breeders and farmers . . . . There could be a common pool to which farmers can contribute [and] . . . also exchange materials with others under Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs).”). (


Jack Kloppenburg:


""A number of analysts have begun to look to the FOSS movement as a model for development of biological open-source practices – ‘BioLinuxes’ (Srinivas 2002) – that might be the basis for resisting enclosure of the gene-scape and for reasserting modalities for freer exchange of biological materials and information (Deibel 2006; Hope 2008). Efforts have been made to apply open-source and ‘copyleft’ principles to a variety of bioscience enterprises (Cassier 2006) including mapping of the haplotypes of the human genome (International HapMap Project), drug development for neglected diseases in the global South (the Tropical Diseases Initiative), the standardization of the components of synthetic biology (BioBricks Foundation) and a database for grass genomics (Gramene).

By far the most substantial of such initiatives has been that undertaken by Richard Jefferson and his colleagues at the non-profit CAMBIA. Convinced of the utility of advanced genetics for improving agriculture in marginal and inadequately served communities, he had been frustrated by the narrow uses to which corporations have put genetic engineering and deeply critical of the constraints they place on the sharing of patented technology (Jefferson 2006). Jefferson has formally institutionalized the principles of BIOS (capital ‘I’) in the charter and operations of a programme known as BiOS (lower case ‘I’), an ‘innovation ecosystem’ designed to ‘democratise problem solving to enable diverse solutions through decentralised innovation’ by ensuring ‘both freedom to operate and freedom to cooperate’ in a protected commons (CAMBIA 2009). BiOS involves integrating cutting edge biological research with open-source licensing arrangements that ‘support both freedom to operate, and freedom to cooperate’ in a ‘protected commons’ (CAMBIA 2009). The ‘copyleft’ provisions of the BiOS licence have proven effective in deflecting companies seeking to access CAMBIA’s portfolio of vectors and biotechnologies for the purpose of developing derivative products that would not be shared except on their terms. A protected commons can be – indeed, has been – created.

The seed sector appears to offer some interesting potentials for elaboration of a ‘BioLinux’ approach to open-source innovation (Douthwaite 2002; Srinivas 2002; Aoki 2008). Millions of farmers the world over, mostly but not exclusively in the global South, are engaged in the recombination of plant genetic material and are constantly selecting for improvements. Even more massively than their software programmer counterparts, they are effectively participating in the process of distributed peer production that Eric Raymond has characterized as the ‘bazaar’. Like programmers, farmers have found their traditions of creativity and free exchange being challenged by the IPRs of the hegemonic ‘permission culture’ and have begun looking for ways not just to protect themselves from enclosure and dispossession, but also to reassert their own norms of reciprocity and distributed innovation. Moreover, farmers have potential allies in this endeavour who themselves are capable of bringing useful knowledge and significant material resources to bear.

Although its capacity is being rapidly eroded, public plant science yet offers an institutional platform for developing the technical kernels needed to galvanize recruitment to the protected commons. And in the practice of ‘participatory plant breeding’ there is an extant organizational vehicle for articulating the complementary capacities of farmers and scientists in the North (Murphy et al. 2004) as well as the South (Salazar et al. 2007). Could ‘copyleft’ arrangements establish a space within which these elements might coalesce and unfold into a movement for the recovery of something resembling seed sovereignty?

The recent appreciation of the potential utility of open-source methods for the seed sector was preceded by a similar apprehension on the part of a member of the plant breeding community itself. At the 1999 Bean Improvement Conference, University of Guelph bean breeder Tom Michaels presented a paper titled ‘General Public License for Plant Germplasm’ (Michaels 1999). In it, he noted that as a result of

- . . . the opportunity to obtain more exclusive novel gene sequence and germplasm ownership and protection, the mindset of the public sector plant breeding community has become increasingly proprietary. This proprietary atmosphere is hostile to cooperation and free exchange of germplasm, and may hinder public sector crop improvement efforts in future by limiting information and germplasm flow. A new type of germplasm exchange mechanism is needed to promote the continued free exchange of ideas and germplasm. Such a mechanism would allow the public sector to continue its work to enhance the base genotype of economically important plant species without fear that these improvements, done in the spirit of the public good, will be appropriated as part of another’s proprietary germplasm and excluded from unrestricted use in other breeding programs. (Michaels 1999, 1)

The specific mechanism that Michaels goes on to propose is a ‘ General Public License for Plant Germplasm (GPLPG) ’ that is explicitly modelled on a type of licence common to open-source arrangements in software. This mechanism is simple, elegant and effective. It can be used by many different actors (individual farmers, communities, indigenous peoples, plant scientists, universities, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and private companies) in many places and diverse circumstances. Properly deployed, it could be an effective mechanism for creating a ‘protected commons’ for those who are willing to freely share continuous access to a pool of plant germplasm for the purposes of ‘bazaar’-style, distributed peer production." (from: Biological Open Source and the Recovery of Seed Sovereignty)


"I suggest that what is so powerful and potentially transformative about open-source principles is precisely the manner in which they encourage us to look beyond the constraints of the taken-for-granted, dominant system and ask us to embrace the potentialities of freely given and shared social labour. One of the hallmarks of opposition to the current economic and social formation is the emergence of a sense of the plausibility of coalescing local struggles into a global mass movement (Kingsnorth 2004; Bello 2007). Hardt and Negri (2004, xiii, xv) call this coalescence the ‘multitude, the living alternative that grows within Empire’ and suggest that the challenge facing the multitude is not to homogenize, but to discover ‘the common that allows them to communicate and act together’. Hardt and Negri (2004, xv) further claim that ‘the common we share, in fact, is not so much discovered as it is produced’. Application of open-source principles to plant genetic resources offers a concrete and critically important context in which to materially enact that production.

Use of the GPLPG by farmers, indigenous communities and progressive plant scientists could initiate the establishment and elaboration of an alternative network of varietal development and seed production and exchange. Given the power of agribusiness, the co-opted and compromised character of public agricultural science and the constraints of many national agricultural policies, that is now no easy task. If a protected commons based on open-source principles can be birthed, its midwives must be the constellation of diverse social movements now working around the globe for a more just and sustainable agriculture."

What are the prospects for implementing a GPLPG/BioLinux programme in different geopolitical circumstances?

Jack Kloppenburg:

'It is in the geopolitical South that farmers would be most receptive to a BioLinux approach and that open-source arrangements could be most rapidly implemented and disseminated. Farmers from Mali to India to Indonesia to Colombia are keenly aware of the way in which the transformation of plant breeding and the seed/life industries sector has damaged their interests and is threatening their livelihoods.

Many have organized themselves to resist corporate efforts to spread GM varieties and IPRs, to pursue seed-saving, to work for farmers’ rights, to create community gene banks and to continue the traditions of landrace exchange and development (Argumedo and Pimbert 2006; Salazar et al. 2007).

Proliferating linkages between these organizations, facilitated by NGO allies and digital communications, provide a network through which understanding and implementation of a global BioLinux/GPLPG initiative can be widely and effectively promulgated (Desmarais 2007). If large numbers of farmers chose to refuse to supply seeds to any representative of any organization except with an accompanying GPLPG-MTA, a protected commons could be rapidly and virally enlarged. Many, and probably most, farmers in the global South freely exchange seeds now and will probably be glad to continue that practice with any individual or any organization that is willing to reciprocate. Protection from appropriation for varieties produced by farmer-breeders would be effectively established, agricultural biopiracy would be eliminated and a barrier to the rampant spread of corporate cultivars would be erected.

Such defensive measures could be complemented by proactive cultivation of an institutional and technical platform for development of open-source crop varieties. There already exist a variety of quite robust participatory breeding programmes that have produced productive collaborations between farmers and plant scientists (Almekinders and Hardon 2006; Salazar et al. 2007).The fertility and dynamism of bazaar-style distributed peer production in participatory breeding programmes will in significant measure be a function of the number of farmer ‘eyes’ available. It will also be critical, however, to enlarge the number of plant scientists bringing complementary, formal knowledge to bear on agro-ecological problems. Recruitment of plant scientists to work in the protected commons will be facilitated by the opportunity to use the full range of tools available in contemporary genetics. In this regard, it may be useful for farmers’ organizations and the NGOs and advocacy groups supporting them to rethink rejectionist positions towards the techniques and products of biotechnology and to consider their potential for contributing to a just and sustainable agricultural development (Jefferson 2006; Ruivenkamp 2008). A failure to distinguish between biotechnology and corporate biotechnology has too often led to impoverishment of debate and a discursive climate in which the dystopian construct of ‘Frankenfood’ confronts the utopian construct of ‘Golden Rice’. What will attract farmer innovators and scientific innovators alike to the bazaar/protected commons will be access to materials that are exciting and useful, and they could even be transgenic constructs as well as landraces.

Intensive efforts would also need to be made to develop an institutional platform for promulgation of GPLPG/BioLinux approaches. At the national level, this will mean confronting state assertion of ‘national sovereignty’ over genetic resources and the role of national agricultural research services. At the international level, this will mean pushing the CGIAR centres and the Mulitlateral System of the ITPGFRA in open-source directions. This will be difficult, but not necessarily unworkable. The CGIAR system in particular yet retains a commitment to public purpose and its broad germplasm holdings and experience with participatory breeding would be invaluable resources for building the protected commons. Moreover, the MTA now officially adopted by the CGIAR centres contains an open-source element which, even in diluted form, has already led private firms to balk at its use (Saenz 2008). Given its declining status in the global constellation of agricultural research enterprises, the CGIAR system might be made amenable to some significant restructuring if appropriate pressures could be brought to bear by social movements."

BioLinux and Indigenous Peoples

"If many farmers in the global South would probably be receptive to an open-source approach to crop genetic resources, indigenous peoples in both the South and the North can be expected to take a considerably more cautious attitude. Although the designation of social groupings as ‘indigenous’ is analytically and operationally contested, some crop genetic resources are in fact closely and even exclusively associated with a particular native people (LaDuke 2007). Indigenous peoples have deep historical experience with many types of colonialism and multiple forms of appropriation. They are rightfully suspicious of proposals made by those outsiders who purport to make proposals on their behalf or in what are alleged to be their best interests. Should they be anything but extremely sceptical of a BioLinux imaginary that would ask them to share more widely, when what sharing they have previously undertaken – voluntary or imposed – has almost always resulted in asymmetric extraction? As Lorenzo Muelas Hurtado (1999, 15) of the Movimiento Autoridades Indígenas de Colombia puts it, sharing for indigenous peoples has meant that ‘what is theirs is theirs, but what is ours is everybody’s’. And, in truth, implementation of open-source principles among indigenous peoples does indeed ask that what is ‘theirs’ should become the ‘ours’ of a larger social enterprise. The critical distinction is that it is not the ‘ours’ of Hurtado’s ‘everybody’ (i.e. an open-access commons’) but the ‘ours’ of a ‘protected commons’ populated by those who agree to reciprocally share both the resources for and the fruit of their collective labour. For indigenous peoples this should at least be conceivable, since in some ways it is but the projection of some of their own internal practices and commitments to a larger social context. But that projection is fraught with hazards.There may be materials so imbued with spiritual or cultural meaning that, even if they can be shared, it may be unacceptable to relinquish control over subsequent uses to distributed peer production. However, these may not be insurmountable barriers to participation in a BioLinux. Just as ‘copyleft’ software licences have been developed that do not permit completely unrestricted derivative use, it may be possible to write GPLPG licences that specify ‘some rights reserved’ to encompass the concerns or needs of indigenous peoples."

More Information

  • Srinivas, Biolinuxes,
  • Felipe Montoya, Linux and Seeds, Geeks and Farmers—A Spiritual Link, A42, Aug. 9, 2003,;

  • Tom Michaels, General Public Release for Plant Germplasm: A Proposal by Tom Michaels, Professor of Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, v.1 (Feb. 1999) (unpublished manuscript).