The Fascinating Way Open-Source Seed Breeders Could Save The World

German breeders from Göttingen University just wrote a license for open-source seed modification. And with climate change threatening the survival of our current stockpile of modern seeds, it could be a huge game changer with the ability to make a flurry of new ones.

If you’re an avid gamer, a straight up programmer or just someone with decent knowledge on software development you know what ‘open-source’ means. Open-source software are programs that anyone can modify and redistribute without legal restrictions. Say someone makes an open-source phone app, for example. I can then, technically, change the source code to personalize the program a little to make it my own and the original developer isn’t allowed to be bothered by it because it’s open-source.

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Now imagine the same level of freedom with genetically modifying plant seeds. The need for the open-source comes from breeder’s saying legal restrictions keep them from creating new breeds of plants easily and frequently. Before the license was written, breeders would incur patents or a plant variety protection on their seeds meaning modification and redistribution of the seed is a big legal no-no.

Any seed modified under this new license is protected from those types of patents.

Göttingen University, with the help of Dottenfelderhof agriculture school, have developed tomato and wheat varieties under the new license. The two seeds are now free to be tampered with and improved upon by anyone who gets their hands on a packet of them.

One problem that comes up when talking about open-source seeds is money. If commercial breeders and farmers were to use open-source derived seeds to grow and sell crops, their product could easily be used by another breeder with no consequence. This threatens the life of agricultural business models.

But, it’s still worth having the options out there in order to create new strains that could possibly withstand the impending doom climate change poses. Open-source pharma, open-source beer and open-source videogames exist, and those businesses are doing just fine considering the risk they took to achieve creative freedom.

With the lack of legal restrictions, breeders have the opportunity to continuously modify another breeder’s modification, and so on. Without the license breeders would be left to start from scratch anytime they wanted to create a new and improved seed. Now, they can modify straight from the base product, or choose from a variety of already modified ones in order to make additions or fine tune them. Basically if breeders started modifying open-source varieties in massive waves, varieties would be created at an exponential rate.

This is especially important in the current age of climate change tipping points. The world is changing rapidly and the organisms inhabiting it can’t keep up without a little bit of third party influence. Human beings survive by eating these organisms. This license means that third party influence can easily and efficiently be applied. But only if enough breeders put it to good use. “Good use” meaning, plants that can withstand droughts, pests, pesticides and even abnormal or extreme weather.

North America tried to do something similar to this with the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) in the U.S. but after a while they decided in 2014 it would be too difficult to get enough support to make it a reality. But OSSI is still advocating for the same goal by encouraging breeder’s to follow a pledge keeping their seeds open.

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Another initiative has also found its way in India where the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture has a catalogue of open-source seeds. However, India has never had legal restrictions on such things before.

So, thanks to Germany’s Göttingen University, the world may be taking its first steps towards a free market of seed varieties. And who knows if maybe one of those varieties help humans survive beyond rising global temperatures.