Participatory Plant Breeding

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= “Farmers have developed seed varieties by experimenting over centuries and sharing the improved varieties with others. . . . Participatory plant breeding tries to mix the best in modern science with the wisdom of farmers". - K. Ravi Srinivas [1]


Keith Aoki:

"Janet Hope argues that “participatory plant breeding” may hold some of the answer. “Participatory plant breeding” consists of a set of approaches that seek to “create more relevant technology and more equitable access to technology in order to improve the service and delivery of crop improvement research to the poorest and most marginalised people and areas.” K. Ravi Srinivas and Margaret Kipp have referred to such approaches as “BioLinux.”

First, the concepts of plant breeders’ rights and utility-patented germplasm may be seen as analogous to copyrighted software.” The open source software movement was a response to expansive intellectual property claims that programmers like Richard Stallman felt encroached on the freedom of computer programmers and users to develop, create, or use software through use of the GPL to ensure that “free” (meaning freely accessible) software stays “free.” In the PGR context, “farmers’ rights” groups make a similar claim with regard to plant varieties protected by utility patents or PVP certificates as well as related agricultural biotechnology.

Open access to PGRs potentially underwritten by open source licenses is an idea that responds to the pervasive colonization of germplasm by intellectual property rights regimes and the ways that these regimes encroach on farmers’ freedom to save seeds. Seed saving has been one of the cornerstones of traditional selective breeding. However, with PGRs, the web of proprietary rights spawned over the past two decades continues expanding, and there has not yet been a PGR equivalent of the GPL for software.

Second, the open source software movement and the various farmers’ rights groups in the respective areas of software and PGRs have emerged as international movements with the congruent aims of “ensuring open access to a segment of society that has been heavily commoditized under the guise of intellectual property protection.”132 However, multilateral agreements like TRIPS, the CBD, and the ITPGR send conflicting signals as to what is and what is not proprietary with respect to PGRs.

The CBD characterizes PGRs as “sovereign national property.”

TRIPS mandates that member nations maintain “minimum levels” of intellectual property protection, including some form of proprietary rights in PGRs. While the ITPGR categorizes sixty-four crops and forages (stored ex situ in seed banks)134 as existing in some type of intellectual property “public domain,” the implication is that all other PGRs not so listed are the property of the nations where they are located, and are subject to intellectual propertization.

Third, farmers’ rights advocates have the potential to evolve into what the open source software movement has become, i.e., a commons-based peer-production network that facilitates the sharing of plant genetic information and biotechnological tools.135 This is where adaptation of GPL from the software context into the PGR context may be useful. As in the software context, opposition to proprietary moves regarding PGRs has been coalescing. One of the most active of these groups is the Philippines-based MASIPAG,136 an organization that brings together farmers, scientists, and NGOs to engage in agricultural research.137 To illustrate parallels between trying to ensure free access to PGRs and software source code, consider the following comparisons between MASIPAG’s version of farmers’ rights and the GNU/Linux software model.138 In the context of MASIPAG, Boru Douthwaite writes about parallels with the open-source software movement that created Linux.

For software read seed. 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." (

More Information

  • Almekinders, C. and J. Hardon, eds, 2006. Bringing Farmers Back into Breeding: Experiences with

Participatory Breeding and Challenges for Institutionalization. Agromisa Special 5. Wageningen: Agromisa Foundation.

See also:

  • Free Seeds, Free Software and Free Beer Patrick on [3]

On BioLinux

  • 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).