How could someone own the rights to a seed? Seeds are the life’s harbingers. They have paved the way for life as we know it by providing and sustaining most of this planet’s life and have made human civilization possible through the agriculture’s birth. It is incredibly dangerous to allow the authority over these life-bearing objects to be in the hands of the few. Today there are only a few companies in the entire world that account for most commercial breeding and seed sales. The increasing use of patents to assert control over the world’s seed supply, as well as the world’s farmers, is even more frightening.
Patented seeds cannot be shared, replanted or saved by farmers or gardeners without the risk of heavy court and legal fees that can bankrupt farmers. There are stories of lawsuits being filed simply because entire crops were “contaminated” by the cross-pollination of patented seed crops. Seeds are even being genetically modified to no longer produce seeds, making seed saving impossible and forcing farmers to buy new seed every year. Companies deny the fact that they use this technology, but ironically they own the patent for these “terminator seeds” and “promise to never use it.”
We need to be aware of this growing monopoly on seeds, as there are many potential outcomes, most of which could prove disastrous. The good news is that people are not sitting still. Groups and organizations across the globe are working hard to not only battle for the freedom of the seed through policy, but also to gather, store and, most importantly, share a wide range of heirloom seeds that cannot be patented. One local cooperative farm is doing just that by engaging in their own seed-saving endeavor as well as being part of a larger group seed-saving initiative.
Wild Abundance Community Farm is the name of the cooperative, permaculture-based land project that supports three different ventures including: Regenerative Roots (Dennis Fiser and Anne Drehfal’s organic vegetable operation), Coney Garth (Julie Engel’s pasture-raised rabbit operation) and Cultivating the Commons (Clint Freund and Kass McKinnon’s seed-saving operation). I believe the group’s explanation of the 30-acre co-op says it all: “We all own equal shares of the farm, and work cooperatively to care for the land and develop innovative, integrated systems that can nourish our families as well as the larger community. By sharing ownership of the land, farm enterprises are better able to begin building a sense of permanence on the land without the overwhelming amount of debt that often accompanies purchasing land on your own. Sharing the land also creates a spirit of camaraderie in what can otherwise become an isolating occupation.”
Regenerative Roots is an intentionally small-scale certified organic vegetable farm nestled within the larger Wild Abundance Community Farm cooperative land project in Jefferson, Wisconsin. Anne and Dennis operate the vegetable farm and have been farming together since 2009. Every time I go out to visit,it is quite clear that they really have it figured out. Between the two of them, they have about 20 years of experience farming and an infinite supply of love for the land, adventurous spirits and a genuine generosity that has to be experienced to be fully understood. They are truly wonderful people who continue to create a shining example of how organic farming cannot only be sustainable, but can also thrive in today’s large-scale industrial farming world. Anne and Dennis prioritize being a small-scale farm because they “enjoy being involved in all aspects of farming” and aim to keep it that way. The driving force behind the farm is a focus on land stewardship and regenerative agriculture, hence the name.
Today, Willy Street Co-op is their primary wholesale account, which comprises 60% of the farm’s total sales. They also have about 40 current CSA shares and sell at two local markets. In the Willy Street Co-op Produce departments, you can find their kale varieties, chard, seedless cucumbers, and heirloom and cherry tomatoes when in season.
Recently they began working with a seed-saving group to share their kale seed. This project is a combined effort between Regenerative Roots and Cultivating the Commons, the seed-saving project at Wild Abundance Community Farm run by Clint and Kass. While there are a number of seed-saving projects going on at the farm, the seeds they have pledged to the Open Source Seed Initiative are two specific varieties of lacinato kale: Old Growth Palm and Dazzling Blue.
Open Source Seed Initiative
The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) was created by a group of folks with the common goal to “free the seed.” Using the model created by open source software designers, this group of farmers, plant breeders, seed companies and sustainability advocates aims to keep seeds free from patents. Their mission statement says that OSSI “is dedicated to maintaining fair and open access to plant genetic resources worldwide in order to ensure the availability of germplasm to farmers, gardeners, breeders, and communities of this and future generations.” This is done through OSSI’s outreach and OSSI pledge dissemination, which aims to preserve the right to freely use and share the seeds they offer.
The OSSI Pledge
“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.”
OSSI is essentially a platform for plant breeders who agree to share favored, unique or rare seed varieties with whoever agrees to disseminate the pledge further. When I asked Anne and Dennis how they became involved with OSSI, they said that they had been growing a few of the OSSI seed varieties “because they simply outperform other varieties” according to NOVIC. The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaboration (NOVIC) puts together a national database of organic varietal trials for sharing information with growers and researchers.
The evolving endeavors at the Wild Abundance cooperative have taken inspiration from OSSI and other seed-saving initiatives to create Cultivating the Commons. Clint and Kass run the operations and focus on small-scale, regionally adapted seed from overwintered plants to provide “freed seed” for the regional community. Catalyst and inspiration create more solutions, just as the OSSI pledge seeks to establish among the seed-driven community. The more people who share their concern of seed ownership and control, the more likely to see people rally around a cause of global significance.
How Can You Get Involved?
The first step is to further educate yourself on the challenges facing seed “ownership,” corporate agricultural practices and the potential solutions. Then, take that knowledge and share it with your friends and family. This is how a movement is truly built.
Also, check out the solutions presented by Wild Abundance Community Farm and all of their members, including Regenerative Roots (www.regenerativeroots.com) and Cultivating the Commons. You can support Regenerative Roots by buying their beautiful produce at all the Willy Street Co-op stores, visiting them at the market or checking out one of their fun farm events.
OSSI has numerous resources on their website (http://osseeds.org) including where you can purchase open source seed, a list of partner seed companies and growers as well as a quarterly newsletter and a Get Involved page (osseeds.org/actions/).
As organizations and groups across the globe stand up against large corporate entities and their tightening grip on the basis of our agriculture, people are beginning to understand the gravity of freeing the seed. No one should own life and we certainly should not sit around and let it happen. Free the seed!