Open Source Plant Genetic Resources

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Keith Aoki:

"Some farmers are seed “hackers.” Although their source code—the DNA coding—is closed to them, nature itself or human intervention generates new “hacks” by crosses and mutation, and farmers select hacks that they judge beneficial. The tantalising prospect opens up that [participatory plant breeding] might be able to capture the power of the “bazaar” development model in the same way that the open-source software movement has. . . . If [participatory plant breeding] can harness the creativity of farmer “hackers,” wouldn’t this be a better and safer way of trying to double rice production in the next twenty years than relying on Big Science to pull off a second Green Revolution?

An open source PGR model would be based on the idea that farmers are both users and developers of different types of information technology.

Such a model might be applied not only to the development of plant varieties via selective breeding, genomics, and genetic manipulation of PGRs, but also to the development of related machinery/technology and the sharing of agricultural information, knowledge, and other agricultural know-how.

New plant varieties and related technology developed and created using this participatory process could then be made available to farmers and plant breeders with a GPL-styled license with the same “viral” effect—any subsequent modifications must be openly accessible under the GPL terms.142 Plant varieties subject to a GPL-like license would be covered under a license that explicitly conditions the receipt of the plant materials on a contractual promise that there would be no downstream restrictions on the rights of others to experiment, innovate, share, or exchange the PGRs.

An application of the open source software model, or a variant of it, may be a viable option in the PGR context. Historically, farmers have been selecting seeds and selectively breeding crops for centuries in order to create new varieties. However, while farming practices developed around the globe and over millennia, plant breeding as an organized industry has only been in existence for a little over a century. Intellectual property protection for PGRs then, is an even newer phenomenon. Diamond v. Chakrabarty served as a watershed moment when the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to patenting living organisms. In light of this history, it makes sense to carve out some particular niche, exception, or regulation pertaining to PGRs for food and agriculture.

Application of an open source PGR model could also yield positive developments, in that it may lead to increased understanding about PGRs.

An application of the model would entail creating, maintaining, and growing an inclusive user community of farmers, plant breeders, and researchers through which information and technology may be exchanged freely via decentralized commons-based peer-production networks. Such networks would increase the understanding of plant germplasm among individual farmers and researchers, thus leading to increased capacity building, rather than as passive consumers of technologically advanced but legally inaccessible crop technology systems. Also, like software programmers, farmers have varying criteria they employ when evaluating seeds, depending on locale, the size of their holdings, etc.

An open source PGR model thus would help ensure that farmers in particular local situations would be able to develop and cultivate plant varieties adapted to local climate, soil, and other conditions. This is a much different result than the situation where multinational agrochemical corporations heavily promote “crop technology systems” that attempt to adapt local conditions to accommodate their seeds via expensive chemical inputs, rather than adapting a seed to local conditions. Additionally, such corporations are reluctant to invest in any field where the market size is too small or the profitability of the venture is not readily apparent.148 Another plus point is that an open source PGR model would help prevent further erosion of genetic diversity accelerated by the increasing intellectual propertization of PGRs. The open source model could lead to plant quality improvements because, by analogy in the open source software context, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” An open source PGR model would contribute to increased availability and genetic diversity of PGRs by making germplasm less vulnerable to crop diseases that would be able to wipe out a monoculture crop and to the manipulative moves of an increasingly oligopolistic small number of powerful firms.

“[L]ike software, seed production is a process which has a large fixed cost but which produces a product that can be cheaply distributed [or copied].”150 With software, duplication is digital, whereas with seeds, duplication is the result of the self-replicating nature of the seed itself.

Moreover, the costs of contribution to an already existing and openly accessible plant variety (as would be a computer program in the software context) is low compared to the cost of starting from scratch if permission cannot be secured to work with materials protected by intellectual property rights.

As mentioned above, an open source PGR model would also serve as a means of spreading risk and sharing costs among farmers, “farmers’ rights” groups, and other smaller entities involved in the agricultural sector. Under an open source PGR model that promoted participatory open source breeding projects, smaller seed companies would be able to compete with larger companies by lowering research and development costs, and farmers would be able to participate in creating new varieties suited to local environments, promoting in situ PGR conservation.

In situ conservation, as opposed to ex situ storage in seed banks, is significant because it encourages preservation of traditional farmer knowhow as well as promoting genetic diversity.153 Additionally, the motivations for using an open source model in the PGR context are arguably more profound than in the software area—namely, farmers’ survival, PGR preservation, and feeding regional and global populations.

While an open source model for PGRs has attractive aspects, such a model also presents potential problems that need careful consideration. In the open source software context, the creation and management of a user community is critical.155 The role of the project leader includes the provision of the basic intellectual content and the addition of new contributions. Other tasks also include the setup and maintenance of effective community structures to maximize users’ motivations to contribute and the keeping up of morale within the user/contributor community." (

Policy Infrastructure Proposals

Keith Aoki:

"As with GNU/Linux, it would be crucial to create an institutional structure that coordinated the activities inherent in an open source PGR model. These activities would include, at minimum, bringing farmers, plant breeders, and public and private researchers together; informing the parties about the uses and abuses of intellectual property law; and educating them on ways that a GPL-like license could be used to facilitate open access to PGRs. Might MASIPAG or similar organizations come to fill the void of replicable models for serving developing countries?

Yet another option is the creation of international or international-level crop-specific agencies. With the logistical support of the various regional agricultural research centers, national seed banks, and financial backing from the FAO and private foundations, such agencies would either acquire rights to critical bio-patents pertaining to PGRs or negotiate with the patent holders to grant licenses to the public, such as the “golden rice” license, and dedicate them to the “public domain.”168 These entities would also collect and disseminate information, support innovations, and furnish technical aid to researchers, plant breeders, and farmers." ((

More Information

  • Book: Aoki, K., 2008. Seed Wars: Controversies and Cases on Plant Genetic Resources and Intellectual

Property. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

  • Article on Common Genomes, see: Deibel, Eric, 2006.‘Common Genomes: Open Source in Biotechnology and the Return of the Commons’. Tailoring Biotechnologies, 2 (2): 49–84.