Conceptualizing Seed Commons

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* Article: Sievers-Glotzbach, S., Tschersich, J., Gmeiner, N., Kliem, L., & Ficiciyan, A. (2020). Diverse Seeds – Shared Practices: Conceptualizing Seed Commons. International Journal of the Commons, 14(1), 418–438.




"Commons approaches in the seed sector are multi-faceted: They span from traditional seed systems, i.e. seed sharing networks, to recent anti-enclosure movements that resist intellectual property rights on varieties, like organic breeding initiatives. This paper derives a conceptualization of ‘Seed Commons’ at the local and regional level, based on a comprehensive transdisciplinary research process that integrates diverse types of knowledge, both from practitioners (German and Philippine seed initiatives, companies and NGOs), and the scientific community.

As a result, we identify four core criteria that characterize diverse Seed Commons arrangements at local and regional scales:

(1) collective responsibility,

(2) protection from private enclosure,

(3) collective, polycentric management, and

(4) sharing of formal and practical knowledge.

Discussing these Seed Commons criteria in the context of different Commons approaches, we find that Seed Commons transcend the distinction between traditional (natural resource) Commons and New Commons approaches, by integrating biophysical, informational and cultural elements in their collective governance. Reaching beyond resource characteristics, the Seed Commons criteria reflect practices of Commoning, which aim to fulfill social functions such as farmer empowerment and food sovereignty."

2. Synthetic Summary

"The objective of this paper is to derive a conceptualization of ‘Seed Commons’ at the local and regional level.

We aim to

(i) identify central features of Seed Commons arrangements, which are compatible with both scientific debates and societal practices, and

(ii) show the multiple layers of commons approaches and their interactions relevant in Seed Commons.

To achieve these objectives, we apply a transdisciplinary research process that integrates diverse types of knowledge, both from practical actors (German and Philippine seed initiatives, companies and NGOs), and the scientific community. Determining Seed Commons criteria in a transdisciplinary approach helps to bridge the gap between practitioners and scholarly communities, which has been identified as an ongoing challenge in commons research (van Laerhoven, Schoon, and Villamayor-Tomas 2020), and specifically helps to incorporate the meanings, experiential knowledge, and normative perspectives of Commoners (see Vivero-Pol et al. 2018). This methodology is essential when aiming to link resource and practice-oriented approaches of Commons (ibid.). It further aids in understanding sustainability potentials and practical challenges of Seed Commons initiatives.

The paper is structured as follows. After outlining the underlying transdisciplinary research procedure (chapter 2), we discuss the key terms seeds and varieties (chapter 3.1) and present a literature overview of relevant meta-/case studies on commons-based seed initiatives (chapter 3.2). We then approach Seed Commons from an empirical perspective by providing in-depth case studies of two commons-based seed organizations. We focus on the German breeding initiative Kultursaat e.V. and the Philippine farmer network MASIPAG (chapter 4). Integrating the insights from the definition of central terms, the literature overview and the in-depth case studies, we develop a conceptualization of Seed Commons based on essentially four criteria (chapter 5). We then critically discuss these criteria in the context of different commons approaches (chapter 6). Finally, we reflect on the transdisciplinary research process and conclude with the relevance of insights from Seed Commons for the Commons discourse (chapter 7)."


From the Conclusion

"Based on terminological work, a literature overview, the empirical in-depth study of two organizations from the Philippines and Germany, and discussions with societal stakeholders and the scientific community, we have identified four core criteria that characterize diverse Seed Commons arrangements at local and regional scales: (1) collective responsibility, (2) protection from private enclosure, (3) collective, polycentric management, and (4) sharing of formal and practical knowledge.

Discussing these Seed Commons criteria in the context of different commons approaches, we found that Seed Commons transcend the distinction between traditional (natural resource) Commons and New Commons approaches. The complex nature of seeds and varieties, consisting of biophysical, informational and cultural elements, implies that their collective governance needs to consider aspects of different commons categories. Traditional commons aspects are reflected in the Seed Commons criterion of collective, polycentric management, and in types of Seed Commons that focus on the use, maintenance and exchange of seeds. Practically, access to the biophysical seed needs to be connected to the sharing of associated knowledge to provide the basis for purposive seed activities. Perhaps of even greater importance, Seed Commons initiatives normatively place their activities in the context of resisting attempts to enclosure and preserving agrobiodiversity as a Global Commons. Hence, reaching beyond resource characteristics, the Seed Commons criteria reflect practices of Commoning, which aim to fulfill social functions such as farmer empowerment and food sovereignty. To advance the thorough analysis of such ‘Hybrid Commons’, a review of existing analytical frameworks for diverse Commons categories or understandings in light of their potential for integration or mutual enrichment is needed, taking into consideration their different assumptions and epistemological foundations.

The identification of Seed Commons criteria and the conceptual classification of Seed Commons is the result of mutual learning processes among researchers from different disciplines and stakeholders from outside academia. The practical partners involved in the RightSeeds project cover the main existing approaches in the field of Seed Commons. Moreover, the two organizations Kultursaat and MASIPAG, chosen for the in-depth empirical study, integrate elements from most types of Seed Commons. Therefore, the Seed Commons conceptualization can be claimed to be robust and transferable to both the scientific debate and societal practices (Lang et al. 2012). A further strength of this transdisciplinary approach is that organic breeding organizations have been included as a type of Seed Commons not often addressed in previous empirical studies. Nevertheless, as in any qualitative study, there is a bias because of the necessity to select specific cases. Therefore, an application of the developed criteria to other initiatives, for instance in other regions, and their subsequent review and refinement, is needed. The criteria developed to characterize local Seed Commons initiatives are, in principle, also relevant for global Seed Commons. An in-depth reflection will be required to assess and adapt the developed criteria to the global scale.

The Seed Commons criteria point to general sustainability potentials and governance challenges, which can help to highlight the importance of Seed Commons initiatives for achieving core sustainability objectives, and to address systemic barriers that impede their upscaling. The protection of seeds from private enclosure guarantees farmers access to seeds, and the sharing of practical skills and formal breeding knowledge provides associated knowledge, thereby strengthening core elements of food sovereignty. Moreover, expressing and practically taking responsibility for the protection, provision and development of crop diversity, combined with the collective governance and development of seeds in polycentric structures, suggests that social-ecological resilience in agricultural systems is supported. Further empirical research is needed to assess the social-ecological effects of Seed Commons. Many Seed Commons initiatives are confronted with similar practical challenges: Existing instruments that aim to secure the protection of newly developed varieties from private enclosure, such as registration on non-commercial organizations and the use of open source licenses or pledges, still have to be evaluated regarding their effectiveness. Moreover, additional instruments need to be developed. A further challenge is the long-term financing of the Seed Commons organizations, especially with regard to breeding activities. Because of the rejection of private property rights, income sources such as license and replication fees do not apply. Regionally adapted varieties, a result of polycentric, decentral breeding structures, go along with small sales markets, posing further financing challenges."


Defining Seed Commons

"Commons in the seed sector are multifaceted: They span from traditional seed systems (such as seed exchange networks or community seed banks) to recent anti-enclosure movements (such as open source seeds and organic breeding initiatives) that resist intellectual property rights on varieties. Despite several meta-studies on certain types of commons-based seed practices and initiatives, a comprehensive conceptual classification of the diversity of local and regional commons initiatives in the field of seeds and varieties is lacking. Such a conceptual investigation of commons approaches in this field can help to generate insights into the entanglement of New Commons (specifically, Global and Knowledge Commons) characteristics with traditional commons elements. Additionally, seed initiatives often aim to achieve social functions on the regional and local level such as community building and democratic participation, which are emphasized in recent conceptions of Commoning (Euler 2018; Müller 2012; Vivero-Pol 2017). Understanding governance challenges originating from their hybrid nature is a topic of high societal relevance, as commons in the fields of seeds and varieties are being discussed as approaches to enhance food sovereignty, farmer empowerment and sustainable agriculture (e.g., Girard & Frison 2018; Kloppenburg 2014; Pautasso et al. 2013)."

The Right Seeds Initiative

Tschersich, J. et al. :

"The conceptual work of this paper is part of the transdisciplinary research project RightSeeds, which explores commons-based seed systems and their transformative potential for realizing food security, food sovereignty and enhancing agrobiodiversity in plant cultivation. RightSeeds follows an understanding of transdisciplinarity as a problem- and solution-oriented endeavor, in which new knowledge is generated through the collaboration of scientists from different disciplines with practitioners (Jahn 2008; Lang et al. 2012). The perspectives and disciplinary knowledge from ecology, economics, political science and ethics, as well as farming, breeding and other practical knowledge from European and Philippine practical partners are integrated. In Germany and Austria, these include 16 organizations and initiatives in the fields of organic plant breeding, seed production and marketing, variety conservation, food retailing and NGOs. In the Philippines, MASIPAG is the practical partner of the project, a network of 35.000 rice grower families, plant breeders, scientists and NGOs." (

Seed Commons from a conceptual perspective

"After deriving four core criteria of Seed Commons primarily from in-depth empirical case studies, the following section will reflect on how Seed Commons transcend the existing conceptual categories in the Commons discourse. We do so by integrating features of Traditional Commons, New Commons (specifically, Knowledge Commons and Global Commons), and Commoning.

Characteristics of Seed Commons from a traditional commons perspective

Traditional commons scholarship has focused on the collective management of natural resource systems, where it is possible, but costly to exclude potential beneficiaries (low excludability), and the use of the resource decreases its availability for other users (high substractability) (Ostrom 1990, 2005). A common-property regime, meaning collectively defined rules, norms and institutions regulating the joint preservation, maintenance and consumption of such common-pool resources, is needed to avoid an over-use and degradation of the resource system (Ostrom 1990, 2005).

Aspects of traditional commons are most strongly reflected in the criterion of ‘collective, polycentric management’. It describes the importance of collectively designing rules and norms for the common management of seeds, a feature that discussions on common-property regimes highlight. In farmer-based seed exchange networks and community seed banks, the respective resource system refers to the existing pool of varieties10 present in (more or less specific) regional boundaries, used and shared among an identifiable group of farmers. Many Commons scholars have also highlighted the importance of polycentricity for an effective and sustainable management of Commons, which is important for decentral, participatory and regionally-adapted breeding approaches (Andersson & Ostrom 2008; Ostrom 2005, 2010; Thiel 2017).

When regarded through a traditional Commons lens, a specific seed is the respective resource unit that individual farmers can appropriate and use for cultivation on their own fields. Seeds and varieties are inherently linked, with a seed being the biophysical carrier material of the genetic code and hereditary function of a variety (Halewood 2013). The common-property regime in this context refers to the institutional, often informal rules that regulate the exchange and maintenance of varieties. Subtractability is an issue only if rules fail, because if farmers take seeds from the common pool without sharing their seed harvest, the resource system degrades. Excludability is somewhat limited, since varieties can be reproduced easily. For example, for vegetables, seeds can be extracted from the fruits. For crops, seeds are identical with the harvest. Nevertheless, the advantages of receiving seeds with information on the varieties and their cultivation in a direct exchange can be an incentive to engage in systems of direct seed exchanges.

Seeds and varieties have material components (the seeds), cultural aspects (the past and present contribution of humans to breeding) and informational aspects (DNA sequences, knowledge regarding breeding and cultivation), which are strongly interdependent (Dedeurwaerdere 2013; Frison 2018; Halewood 2013). Due to these diverse features, the sustainable management of seeds faces particular challenges, which are different from traditional Commons. In contrast to most natural resources, varieties are generally considered to be non-subtractable (Halewood 2013). Use of the resource (on-farm cultivation and selection) leads to adaptation of varieties to local conditions and individual preferences, and thereby, as long as a small part of the resulting seed harvest is shared, to a maintenance and improvement of the variety pool. As most varieties are adapted to particular environmental conditions or human needs, they depend on human involvement. Therefore, they tend to degrade and disappear when they are not actively managed and cultivated by humans (Fowler & Mooney 1990; Wilkes 1988). The resulting fundamental collective action problem hence shifts from over-use to under-provision, a classical feature of New Commons.

New Commons: Knowledge Commons and Global Commons aspects of Seed Commons

With the application of Commons approaches beyond regionally-based natural resources to new fields such as global goods (i.e. the High Seas), digital goods (i.e. Wikipedia), knowledge and cultural goods (i.e. education, music), the concept of New Commons was coined (Hess 2000, 2008). In this literature, Commons are described as organizing principles that allow for the collective creation and sustainable management of resources through (more or less) defined user communities (ibid.). Commons are not given as such, but are actively created (Helfrich 2012; Hess 2008).

Global Commons are a specific type of New Commons in international, supranational, and global resource domains, such as the atmosphere and the deep sea (Joyner 2001; Mudiwa 2002; Soroos 2001). Varieties as expressions and carriers of biodiversity have been described as a Global Commons in the scientific literature (Dedeurwaerdere 2013; Halewood 2013). Similarly, actors of local Seed Commons initiatives often perceive seeds and biodiversity as a Global Commons, for which responsibility should be taken both at the local and global level. This is reflected in the Seed Commons criterion of ‘collective responsibility’.

For New Commons, in particular Cultural and Knowledge Commons, the process of creation gains importance besides the management of the resource. Knowledge Commons refer to the “institutionalized community governance of the sharing and, in some cases, creation, of information, science, knowledge, data, and other types of intellectual and cultural resources” (Frischmann et al. 2014: 3). The conservation and further development of the resource pool (breeding of improved varieties and reproduction of high quality seeds) can be costly and time intensive, especially in the case of rare varieties, or those where reproduction is effortful. The concept of Knowledge Commons can help to better understand participatory breeding efforts in Seed Commons (Sievers-Glotzbach et al., forthcoming). Knowledge and information are present in all steps of breeding and the management of varieties, though being highly interlinked with the material counterparts in the genetic codes of the varieties. Accordingly, ‘collective, polycentric management’ in Seed Commons is always connected to the sharing of knowledge. An analytical differentiation between the processes of creation and management can be helpful, though both processes are highly interlinked (Wolter & Sievers-Glotzbach, 2019). Within a polycentric breeding community, the sharing of knowledge is essential for optimal breeding results. This includes transparency both on the breeding process (genetic information, parental lines, breeding methods and process) and the characteristics of the varieties themselves (variety characteristics, cultivation requirements). Regarding the management of resulting varieties as commons, sufficient information is needed to allow the full use of varieties in cultivation and future breeding efforts.

Knowledge, which has been shown above to be an integral part of the breeding and management of seeds, has similarly been described as a Global Commons (Hess & Ostrom 2007). Especially when varieties and related knowledge are shared with a potentially global user community, as in the case of Kultursaat, breeding and conservation efforts contribute to the maintenance and improvement of Global Commons, such as agrobiodiversity (Dedeurwaerdere 2013; Halewood 2013). While seeds can potentially also be managed as Global Commons, the criteria developed here are intended to characterize local Seed Commons initiatives. For an application on global Seed Commons, the criteria would need to be reviewed and adapted to the global scale.

Characteristics of Commoning: Seed Commons as a social practice

Rather than focusing on specific attributes of goods and property rights regimes, the conceptualization of commons as self-organized and needs-oriented social processes of ‘Commoning’ highlights the centrality of social functions, including democratic participation and autonomy (Euler 2018; Müller 2012; Vivero-Pol 2017). Relationships and values within Commons communities are assessed regarding their transformative potential, as they protest existing institutions by creating living alternatives (Sato & Soto Alarcón 2019; Tummers & MacGregor 2019). Food Commons in particular have been described as a counter-hegemonic movement against neoliberalist tendencies of commodification and enclosure (Vivero-Pol et al. 2018).

The proposed Seed Commons criteria shift the focus from the management of the resource to the social processes of community building and the creation of viable alternatives to conventional seed markets. The empirical studies of MASIPAG und Kultursaat show active processes of Commoning, i. e. of creating communities that allow for the long-term, sustainable management of seeds and varieties aimed at important social functions such as empowerment, self-determination of farmers, and food sovereignty. ‘Protection from private enclosure’ is an active response to the increasing privatization and commodification of seeds. ‘Collective, polycentric management’ provides farmers’ and breeding communities with autonomy to develop solutions adapted to their specific needs. Finally, ‘sharing of knowledge’ largely depends on local social mechanisms of knowledge transmission and social learning, especially concerning Traditional Agroecological Knowledge (Sievers-Glotzbach et al., forthcoming). Taken together, the Seed Commons criteria can be understood as social practices of Commoning, which challenge dominant paradigms of individual property and technological innovation (see Vivero-Pol et al. 2018). As of now, their transformative impact is still limited, but the building of robustness, the strengthening of networks and on-going advocacy for the change of policies could enhance their transformative potential (see Sievers-Glotzbach & Tschersich, 2019)."


  • MASIPAG Seed Commons - Philippines‎ : "a large rice-farmer-breeder network from the Global South, which combines aspects of community seed banks, seed sharing networks and farmer-led breeding".
  • Kultursaat e.V. Seed Commons - Germany‎ : "a biodynamic breeding initiative from the Global North that embraces decentral breeding for an organic agriculture and rejects the private enclosure of varieties"