a new ‘brand’ of seed in town: ossi, or open source seed initiative

April-17-release-flags-e1419000400595 (1)PERHAPS YOU’VE NOTICED it in some of this year’s fresh crop of seed catalogs: A new little designation alongside certain of the varieties labels them as, “open source,” or lists the acronym or logo of OSSI, the Open Source Seed Initiative.

Maybe the variety description says something about a pledge, and makes a comparison to open-source software–the non-proprietary kind that doesn’t require a license to use.

Welcome to the world of “freed seed,” a concept inspired by the open-source software movement, but aimed at insuring that the genes in at least some seed varieties can never be patented and otherwise restricted, and thereby locked away from use.

I wrote a story about the Open Source Seed Initiative for “Mother Earth News” late in 2015. Even in the short time since, there have been such positive developments in the effort that I wanted an update myself, and to share news of this new “brand”—or should I say, “anti-brand”—of seed, in time for your own catalog-shopping adventures.

On my public-radio show and podcast, in Week 2 of this year’s edition of my annual Seed Series, I talked about freed seed with Jack Kloppenburg, an emeritus sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his colleagues included prominent public plant breeders. Jack has been fighting corporate control of seed for three decades, and is a board member of the Open Source Seed Initiative.

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 11, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

OSSI collage

my open-source seed q&a with jack kloppenburg




Q. I know we could spend our whole time together lamenting the state of “ownership” in the seed world, ownership of all the genetics by so few large companies. But let’s just take a moment to set the scene against which OSSI was founded.

A. That’s actually essential, to know where we’re coming from. The events in the commodity seed trade, in corn and soybeans, with Monsanto and Syngenta and Limagrain and Dow. That’s where your listeners probably know what’s going on with patenting.

That hasn’t penetrated too much to vegetable seeds yet, although it’s coming in in the commercial, industrial vegetable production. It hasn’t reached gardeners yet, but understanding where we have been is going to be essential to know where we are going. We are beginning to see those things emerging in garden seeds.

For the past 30 years I have been working on this, as you say, and what we’ve got is essentially a set of gene giants—the Monsantos, DuPonts, Bayers, Syngentas—and consolidation. They’ve bought up a lot of seed companies, and they’ve used intellectual-property rights—patents in particular—to strengthen their position.

If you are now a farmer growing corn or soybeans in this country, you can’t save or replant seed, or share it—because it has been patented. And even beyond patents, even to get access to the seed itself, farmers in corn and soy and canola must sign a technology use agreement, which is a contract. Farmers growing corn, soybeans, canola—they don’t even buy seed any more, but lease a one-time use.

We’re beginning to see that bleed into vegetable production. Monsanto has bought Seminis, one of the largest vegetable-seed companies, and De Ruiter. Its practice of patenting seed is now being followed by such companies as Sakata and Rijk Zwaan.

Even if you look closely in the Burpee catalog, you may find a warning that there is some patented seed. In the Johnny’s catalog, your readers may note you will look and see under lettuces in particular that Johnny’s is telling you, when they know, that a variety has been patented—but they don’t always know.

ossi collage 2Q. Why is it important for genetics to remain accessible—is it the breeders most of all who need to have the genetic resources? Where is it most important, and why? [Above, some of the diverse corn and lettuce genetics in the OSSI repository.]

A. It’s important all over, but you point out that breeding is particularly constrained. That’s because with patented seed, there is no research exemption for it. So breeders, whether farmer-breeders, or freelance breeders, small-company breeders or big-company breeders, or whether they are in our universities—they can’t get access to that patented seed for research purposes.

Which means that we are deeply constrained in how we are going to respond to climate change. The production of new varieties depends critically on access to material for breeding—to the diversity that’s embedded in all that material that’s out there.

As your listeners understand, we can see climate change all around us, right now. How we are a going to respond as a society, as an agricultural community to challenges to where disease pressures are going to emerge, where drought comes in, where rain comes in—how we’re going tor respond to environmental and disease and insect pressures that will be profoundly changing, depends on capacity to access genetic diversity. And that’s constrained if the companies have got it locked up.

ossi-breeder-irwin-goldman-university-of-wisconsin-carrotsQ. I’ve even read stories that people are trying to patent things like traits for very dark red lettuce leaves, that are red throughout—things that seem to me like nature expressing itself, not like the invention of the iPad. Do you know what I mean?

A. That’s particularly appalling, and it’s one of the reasons why my colleague Irwin Goldman [above] here at the University of Wisconsin, who is an onion and beet and carrot breeder, how he got into this—why he was stimulated to do something about it and joined OSSI. He found that red carrots had been patented, and he said, “But I’ve got red carrots. I know that they’re all over the place. How can they be patenting what is a product of nature, a naturally occurring trait?”

And here’s where political economy comes into it. The United States P.T.O.—the Patent and Trademark Office—is overwhelmed. That’s not the only natural trait being patented or applied for a patent. The companies when they’re this big will patent anything they want to, and expect someone to challenge it. But it takes money to challenge it, and it takes someone who’s paying attention to challenge.

So what we’re seeing in the U.S., and even more in Europe, is that really problematic claims are being made. And it isn’t just one claim, red carrots. Any claim that has genetic engineering, or even conventional breeding techniques are being patented. Any one patent has anywhere from 10 to 64 claims in it, and you’ve got to be a lawyer and a geneticist and a farmer and an agronomist to know what’s even being claimed.

Q. Oh, my.

I think it was 2012 that OSSI was founded, correct?

A. In 2012 we were formed officially, and we are now a 501(c)3.

Q. How does it work? On your website it talks about “freed seed,” not free as in given away for free.

A. That’s a critical distinction.

Q.  OSSI is sort of a creative commons for seed germplasm–seed genetics—but it’s also protected, so how does it work?

A. We took our inspiration from these sort of open-source tendencies that you see all over the place right now, as people try to figure out how it is that we can build a sharing economy, or have components of sharing, in opposition to the kind of consolidation and locking up and closure of the commons that’s taking place all over.

We looked at how are we going to do this with seeds? How can we maintain, or create a set of germplasm, of seed varieties, that can’t be patented? And what we do is use a tool we call our pledge. It’s quite simple:

“You have the freedom to use these OSSI-pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.”

What that means is that anybody who pledges their variety as an OSSI variety agrees to allow anybody who gets this variety to save, replant, breed with—and to transmit that pledge along with those seeds or any derivatives. The derivatives is important, because that means that anything you do with these seeds, any new variety you breed, any change you make to it, is also OSSI-pledged, and we theoretically have an enlarging set of “freed”—with a “d” on the end of it—seed, that begins to compete and provide an alternative to farmers, consumers, gardeners, anyone who wants to maintain freedom of access to some material.

ossi sellers 2Q. So first breeders would pledge their varieties to OSSI—to say, “We’re putting this into the commons,” so to speak. And then people who wanted to take it out and use it, to buy a quantity of it and use it maybe in their own breeding, they’d put the next generations back into there, too. So it perpetuates that way. [Above and below, logos of current sellers of OSSI-pledged varieties of seed.]

And end consumers, like farmers, can save their seed—which you said cannot happen in the example with the big corporate seed.

A. That’s right, we’re an alternative, and in fact Monsanto has commented on us in print now. It’s not a commons that we are creating, but a protected commons—which is to say it’s not just public domain that anybody including Monsanto can access. It’s what we call a protected commons, because if you access an OSSI-pledged seed you have to agree to the OSSI pledge. That’s something that Monsanto won’t do, because they can’t agree to the pledge.

In an article that some of their corn breeders published in the most recent publication of “Plant Breeding Reviews,” they’ve called OSSI’s seeds, “too contagious to touch.”

ossi sellersQ. [Laughter.]

A. Which is exactly what we intend, because they can’t touch it.

Q. Which is what happened before. When it was just some open-source seed breeders [without the pledge]—and there are a number of great ones—Monsanto et al. would take things out (and I am oversimplifying). And they could do that, and abscond with it, so to speak [laughter] and use those traits in their own work and then patent those works derived from what had been open source…but it hadn’t been in a protected commons. So this is the difference?

A. We’re trying to build that protected commons as an ethical community of breeders, seed companies and farmers and gardeners and consumers, ultimately, who hopefully will buy produce produced from freed seed. We’ve even got an angle going on that now.

OSSI is sort of the glue for this thing, the catalyst. We’re not a seed company; we’re an educational 501(c)3.

We have a catalog, and register things. What happens is that a breeder who agrees and says, “I want my material to be used. I’m not looking to get rich off it, but I do want to be rewarded for my labor. I don’t want to patent it; I want it to be used and shared and transformed. I’m going to pledge my variety.”

Frank Morton of Wild Garden SeedOr as Frank Morton [above] has done: all his varieties. To release them under the OSSI pledge.

That means the material is only released and available under the pledge. We work then with OSSI seed-company partners who agree to sell the pledged seed with a formal agreement with OSSI. They say the company will sell it, and publish the pledge in their catalog and online, label the varieties with OSSI or the logo, and identify the breeder—so that the breeder gets some credit.

They also agree then for any bulk sales of those seed, that are likely to be re-sold or bred with, they’ll transmit the pledge along.

We now have 24 breeders, and 24 seed companies, and this growing season—this catalog season—over 250 varieties and growing. I just got an email today that we’ve got more. Not only seed companies but breeders are saying, “Yeah, we can be part of this.”

What OSSI is trying to do essentially—it’s not just all altruism. We’re trying to create a market for ethically produced seed.

Many of your listeners may want to buy organic seed, and they can, alongside conventional. They may want to buy seed that’s got the Safe Seed Pledge. What we’ve got is the OSSI pledge. We’re adding on another layer of what you might call socially aware political economy of ethically produced seed and branding it—giving gardeners and farmers an opportunity to buy it, and seed companies an opportunity to sell it.

We hope that there is a market for ethically produced seed.

Q. It’s interesting: The numbers have really jumped. When I wrote the “Mother Earth News” story not so many months ago, there were 12 companies signed on to sell OSSI seed and about 60 varieties of seed that has been pledged. You’ve doubled the number who are selling and quadrupled the varieties in no time.

A. And we want to be sure we can do this well and correctly this growing season, and serve the seed-company partners that we have. That seems to be going well. We believe there is a market out there for ethically produced seed.

Q. Let’s talk about some examples of seed that has been pledged. You mentioned Frank Morton, who is Wild Garden Seed—a great breeder of lettuce and greens and calendula [below] and more. And he has pledged his list?

Screen-shot-2014-07-14-at-7.26.08-PMA. All of his list now.

Q. Now that’s one of the great contemporary breeders—that’s fantastic for OSSI, and not just any old seed that someone wants to drop off at your doorstep. Prime stuff.

A. You’ve got it.  We hope that people will be interested in buying some OSSI seed for social and political reasons, because you’re part of the freed-seed movement.

But it needn’t be purely that. It’s also social; you want to support breeders like Frank, who are independent, farmer-breeders, freelancers who are not part of a university or part of a big seed company. We need that diversity in the scientific breeding community to maintain the broad range of varieties that we are going to need to respond to climate change and keep good varieties out there.

But it’s also true that isn’t enough. Varieties that we offer need to have agronomic and culinary advantages as well. And we’ve got them. Let me run over some of our breeders [get the whole list] and what they’ve got to offer.

Wild Garden Seed OutredgeousFrank’s a great place to start. Is there a better breeder out there than Frank, of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon? He’s been at it for ages, and is best known for wonderful lettuce varieties like ‘Emerald Oak’ and ‘Merlox’ and ‘Hyper Red Rumple Waved.’ You see them in other catalogs—in Fedco, Bountiful Gardens, all over the place. But what people may not know is that Frank’s red Romaine called ‘Outredgeous’ [above] is the only lettuce that has been grown in space and consumed in space.

Q. [Laughter.] I didn’t know that.

 A. It was.  It was selected to go up on the International Space Station to experiment with it there and was grown there and eaten by astronauts. It’s so red that people don’t even necessarily identify it as a lettuce at trials.

He’s also got ‘Stocky Red Roaster’ pepper, and ‘Red Ursa’ kale. He grows for flavor.

Jonathan Spero is another of our farmers in Oregon, at Lupine Knoll Farm, a seed grower: ‘Top Hat’ sweet corn (available at Restoration Seeds, Bountiful Gardens, Fedco). And ‘Solstice’ broccoli, which is my favorite and the one I grow—not only because it tastes good, but because you can make a broccoli that is 2 feet across, but I don’t want it. What I want is the side shoots.

Q. Me, too.

A. The central head is great, and when I’m done with it, but what I want is then the side shoots coming all the rest of the season. Jonathan’s ‘Solstice’ broccoli does that for me.

Carol Deppe of Fertile Valley Seed—the intellectual among the freelance breeders, you might say, with a Harvard PhD in genetics, is also a writer [and an OSSI board member]. For those who are interested in parching corn—not just growing it and eating it the way it comes out, but parching corn and flour corn, her ‘Parching Red Manna’ corn is maybe the way to go.  For cornbread and polenta, she’s breeding for something besides eating sweet corn or feeding it to animals.

copyright Adaptive SeedsQ. I love her ‘Sweet Meat Oregon Homestead’ winter squash. That is a spectacular squash, and that’s in the OSSI repository.  [Photo above from Adaptive Seeds, which offers the seed and has also pledged its own varieties to OSSI, from breeder Andrew Still.]

A. It’s so important that I should mention my colleague Irwin Goldman at University of Wisconsin, who’s got populations out there now—these are not varieties, but for other breeders, OSSI-freed seed that can be used to breed other varieties.

You’ve got people like Joseph Lofthouse, from northern Utah, with landraces of seed from up in the mountains—the stuff that’s needed to build on and have available as we respond to climate change.

Q. I saw wheat and quinoa, spelt, barley in the OSSI list—breeders pledging genetics of those—and also the list from the Dwarf Tomato Project pledged as well.

A. From Australia—so we’re international. Bill Whitson from Cultivariables with South American indigenous crops like oca and ulluco and yacon–a yacon that I’d never even heard of that you can try out, that is not photoperiod dependent and can be grown by us right here.

We’ve got connections to the Guild of Oca Breeders in the United Kingdom as well—so we’re after diversity. Diversity of varieties, diversity of our breeders, building a community of breeders, farmers, seed companies, gardeners, and eaters that’s committed to an alternative path, to a truly sustainable agriculture that is just and sustainable for all of us.

find ossi seeds and learn more


prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 11 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Sharon says:

    Margaret, this is such an important post. Going forward, I pledge to buy only OSSI seeds whenever possible. I am also going to share this post with my friends, clients, and garden groups. The power of the purse, multiplied.

  2. Catherine Smith says:

    This is a marvelous idea. I’m forwarding this to some of my other master gardener buddies who only grow organic. I normally only by organic seed, but this is big plus and opens up a whole new group to explore and buy from. More seed catalogs!! Woohoo, how can you beat that? LOL

  3. @cherylreads says:

    I’m a home gardener in Central California literally surrounded by fields of patented produce. I am very excited about this and will use these seeds! Thanks to everyone for all the hard work you’ve put into this important movement!! And I love the “freed seed” line

    1. margaret says:

      Glad to hear your positive response, Cheryl. Same here in dairy-farming country, where all the fields of fodder are engineered crops. Sigh.

  4. Betsyohs says:

    Very cool, and I also pledge to buy as much of my seed (for my small garden) as possible as OSSI seed. A question: in the last answer, Kloppenburg says “yacon…that is not photoperiod dependent”. What does photoperiod mean?

    1. Bill W. says:


      Many plants of tropical origin depend on the length of the day (photoperiod) for certain functions, such as flowering or forming tubers. Many of the Andean roots and tubers like oca, ulluco, and mashua require day lengths of 12 hours or less before they form tubers; they are photoperiod dependent. The importance of this in North America is that short days begin in late September and these plants are not frost resistant, so they can’t easily be grown in areas where frosts arrive before mid-November. Yacon, another tuber crop of Andean origin, is not photoperiod dependent, which makes it easier to grow in climates that have early frost.

  5. Joy says:

    I’m so happy to read this interview with Jack Kloppenburg, who’s stimulated many advances in sustainable agriculture in Wisconsin. My family farm in Indiana is firmly held by Monsanto and Syngenta, and the system creates an entanglement that’s difficult to break. So glad to hear of OSSI, and I’ll pass this excellent interview on to others as well.

  6. Gaye Sinclair says:

    Don’t let edible and decorative but non-edible varieties interbreed if you keep the seeds and eat the resulting produce…

    Last summer a German pensioner died from eating homegrown courgettes. His wife was also poisoned but survived.

    These vegetables belong to a group that used to have high content of Cucurbitacin. Present varieties have been bred to a low level of the deadly poison. But seeds from privately grown vegetables can re-breed to dangerous levels of the poison. A particular danger is the presence of decorative versions of some of the vegetables: These can have high poison levels and their seeds of local freedom can restore poison to the greens grown for eating.

    The case of the poisoned home gardener was widely reported in Germany f.ex. here:

  7. Donna says:

    I will look for the ossi. Much of my seed is from Fedco so I’m off to a good start. Try to also buy from NE seed companies as they’re seed seems more likely to be good producers for me.

  8. Molly says:

    Thank you. What a wonderful, informative and entertaining post/podcast. So much information in one spot. Makes seed buying easy….except for the decision making. Too much wonderful stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.