Lettuce Linux or how to farm for the common good | Expert network | future planet | The USA Print

The open source seed model has been compared to “Linux for lettuce”. Building on the principles of the digital commons of software of open source—which, in turn, was based on the idea of ​​the natural resource commons and the cooperative food movement that originated in the 19th century—the concept and social movement of open source seeds has developed over the course of the last decade as a response to an increasing privatization of seeds and a high loss of varieties of fruits and vegetables in our fields —one of the impacts accelerated by industrial agriculture.

Before there were almost as many varieties as producers. Today, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), we have allowed 80% of varieties that were cultivated a century ago to disappear and already in 2018 four corporations controlled more than 60% of world sales of proprietary seeds. This dramatic reduction in cultivated biodiversity increases the vulnerability of crops to pests and extreme weather conditions.

The key to the Open Source Seed (SCA) model is based on using the licensing mechanism, normally used by the dominant seed system to privatize them, with the opposite objective. Through licenses copyleft (opposite of copyright), SCAs are open to the world in a protected way, allowing anyone to use them freely, that is, to cultivate, save, propagate, develop, improve and reproduce them.

SCA purchasers cannot privatize the seed or its progeny through exclusive intellectual property rights or other use restrictions, and these same rights and obligations are assigned to subsequent recipients. The SCA model further encourages the recognition of those who improve one of these seeds through the attribution of credit and any resulting benefits must be spread throughout the entire value chain of the seed.

There are physical seed initiatives in several countries. The US Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) was the first to formalize in 2014 and is still ongoing. More similar initiatives followed in other countries such as Germany, Argentina and, more recently, Italy (taking advantage of the new European regulation of Ecological Heterogeneous Material which is expected to support the production of seeds for organic farming). Also in Kenya and the Philippines. Corn breeders for the Monsanto company have called OSSI’s seeds “too contagious to touch.” the label of copyleft A seed package not only declares the intentions and rights of the producer or breeder, but also raises public awareness about seed issues, often hidden and largely unknown compared to other challenges in the food system.

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Today, big data has emerged as a new product in its own right and the food and seed systems have not escaped this trend. The reduction in the cost of genetic sequencing technologies is allowing technological advances that allow the reproduction of DNA from seeds in virtual format, generating the so-called digital sequence information or Digital Sequence Information (DSI) in English, giving rise to the creation of big data on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. This technical advance has unleashed a controversy around the regulation of international access to DSI and the rules regarding the fair and equitable distribution of the benefits derived from its use, as established by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Should a line of code for the genetic sequencing of a seed be regulated by the same legal framework as a physical seed? Although DSI is derived from physical plant materials and can be synthesized back into physical form again, it can now have value without needing to recover its materiality. Thanks to DSI, genetic information can be replicated and experienced without movement or access to physical seeds. Big data, instead of seeds, becomes the crop that yields the most profitable harvests.

Before, the varieties were common goods, not private. Their digitization and dematerialization into lines of code make seeds that are not owned by anyone more susceptible to appropriation and digital biopiracy. The SCAs, with their license copyleftoffer legal protection that enables disruptive change by converting the seeds of res nullius —that is, owned by no one and, therefore, susceptible to appropriation— to res communisthat is, owned by all.

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The project The challenge of seed digitization: sustainability, big data and the social movement for open source seed systems, framed in the Department of Sociology of the UNED and financed by the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation, through the Daniel Carasso Fellowship 2021, addresses these problems. Until now, open source seed initiatives have focused on physical seeds. However, addressing the increasing digitization of seed material, which is opening new and urgent challenges, my research analyzes the concept and social movement of open source seeds as a governance mechanism at the interface of the physical and digital spheres. The uncertainty about the DSI could be used as an opportunity to categorize seeds as a commons, both in their physical and digital formats, governed by open source principles. Connecting to the digital commons community complements and broadens efforts and work on food systems change, connecting it to broader forces and issues beyond food and agriculture.

According to the FAO, we have allowed 80% of the varieties that were cultivated a century ago to disappear and already in 2018 four corporations controlled more than 60% of global sales of patented seeds

The current governance system for farmed biodiversity embodies a forced compromise between widely disparate worldviews: on the one hand, one part of the debate sees DSI restrictions as undermining biodiversity research and intellectual property rights, while others they argue that it does not challenge property regimes around resources and, therefore, consolidates the neoliberalization of biodiversity. The DSI is exacerbating these conflicting worldviews. Complex legal, financial, and biological debates are taking place that make technical what is actually an ethical debate about whether life should be patented and privatized, and who has the right, power, and material resources to do so.

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After a long and heated debate of almost 10 years, the delegates of the United Nations Conference on the Environment (COP15), held in mid-December 2022 in Montreal (Canada), managed to agree to establish within the new Global Framework for Biological Diversity a multilateral fund for the equitable sharing of benefits between providers and users of DSI on genetic resources. The conditions, rules and format of the fund will be finalized at COP16 in Turkey in 2024, turning the DSI into a challenge that, more than finished, has only passed the first page.

Ideas about what progress in seed management and cultivated biodiversity means can best be represented not as a one-track technical and reductionist race, but as efforts to be achieved through a variety of pathways and mechanisms that ensure cultivated biodiversity. and the right of producers to seeds in contexts on site, ex situ, in silico (digitally) and trans situboth in physical and digital spheres.

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