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The Open Source Seed Initiative (osseeds.org)
317 points by ciconia on June 9, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments

For those in Europe, I've had good success growing seeds ordered from the Kokopelli association, which has been doing this for 20 years.

The trick is to find varieties adapted to the local climate, for example ancient varieties from your region no longer commercialized.


In the Uk there's the Heritage Seed Library.


Is this currently "only" a legal problem, or are the GMO crop companies able to produce seeds that produce sterile crops?

I'm sure this has already been done to death, but... Cheesy sci-fi plot where genetically engineered crops crowd out all the reproducing ones, and then humanity starves to death when evilcorp loses their ability to produce the seeds?

Could we maybe not go down this route, please?

It's not about GMO, but about conventional breeding.

There is a concept called hybrid breeding, both for animals and plants. The "final" product, the seed for the farmer, the piglet raised for mass production, is bred from two parent lines, one for the male part, one for the female. Both are relatively inbred so they are mostly homocygotic. Their offspring, because of Mendelian genetics, is mostly heterocygotic, but very homegeneous, which is a great thing, industrially speaking.

However, a farmer can't just raise those piglets and breed them on his own. Not because of patents or licenses, but just because the offspring would be all over the map, genetically. And probably less profitable. The breeding companies need a complicated system to develop these lines and provide their customers with the best seed/livestock. That takes a lot of money and effort.

Hybrid vigor/vigour is part of it, yes.

Another factor is homogeneity of the offspring: parent lines are very much homozygous. If one parent line is AA at one locus, and the other line is aa at the same locus, the children will all have Aa. Meaning they have both versions of the gene (which is usually good, especially in immunity and health) and all have the same status. This means you can produce a couple of hundred piglets grow to the same size in the same time which makes processing and marketing them easier and cheaper.

Another factor is that some breeding goals are mutually exclusive. Piglets for example drink milk from the mother, which means she must have good milk production and other fertility related features, whereas the father can be bred more for muscle growth.

And then there are other weird tricks breeders can pull. I believe in chicken there are experiments with hybrids that hatch in different colors relating to their sex, or don't hatch at all if they are the "wrong" sex.

Yep - "sex-link" chicks are one color for male and one color for female, at time of hatching: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex-link

For some functions of 'best'.

Well, to be more specific, the farmers make more money on the right genetic material.

Hybrids outperform single lines (breeds, etc) on most metrics of interest. And they are homogeneous in growth, size and body composition (animals). Which matters for industrial processing and marketing. And for the price consumers have to pay.

The current agricultural mass production would just not be possible without such hybrid breeding programs. So the OSSI will need to offer seeds from similar breeding programs. There are always lines/breeds which are not hybrid-bred, but the market for that produce is limited.

Higher performance also means less animals tortured, less land and water used to feed the same number of Humans. From a global perspective plant and animal breeding has to become more professional, not less.

As far as I have understood it, the OSSI wants to professionalize the breeding efforts of (non-breeding-company) farmers and small scale breeding companies. Much like many open source projects got professionalized through forming organizations and legal entities.

> Is this currently "only" a legal problem, or are the GMO crop companies able to produce seeds that produce sterile crops?


It's possible to do, but most folks say that they won't ever implement it. The UN has a moratorium on GURT use.

> Cheesy sci-fi plot where genetically engineered crops crowd out all the reproducing ones, and then humanity starves to death when evilcorp loses their ability to produce the seeds?

How would crops that don't reproduce on their own crowd out crops that do? That doesn't really sound like a realistic scenario.

Crops are only more successful than other species because of an artificial environment with pesticide and irrigation.

There could be GMO crops that don't need anything manmade at all, but that'd be a waste of calories in plant growth.

I heard a similar scenario as a plan to kill mosquitoes. I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work but a lot of smart people seem to believe it’s possible.

Well, at the very least those producing the sterile plants have to keep fertile plants.

There are actually plant lines which are more or less sterile and can't really reproduce sexually any more, because they have been (naturally) cloned.

The point is that modern breeding schemes and technology is necessary to feed the growing world population. There is no margin to reduce agricultural performance. You will feel any loss in performance immediately through price hikes.

In mosquitoes this works via genes on the sex-chromosomes, so the female ones are unaffected, while the male ones become sterile.

I don't know enough about plant seeds to transfer that, but I guess it's the same principle.

I don't know about GMO, but regular crops are sterile because the are hybrids. They also are not really sterile, the seeds just don't have the beneficial traits of the original hybrid.

Quite a few crop plants are actually sterile. Cavendish Bananas for example (the kind you get to buy everywhere). They don't have seeds. Sweet oranges are another example.

Good point, I was mainly thinking about grain crops. Wasn't fully aware that the term crops also includes all the other growable fruit.

Many seedless plants can still reproduce by other methods. So having a seedless variety of strawberry for instance would be quite nice.

What bennifit would be gained by having seedless strawberries?

That you don't eat the seeds, mainly. They get between your teeth and some people just don't like them.

Exactly, and seedless pomegranate would be even better.

Breeders have "the power" to do all these licensing and patenting shenanigans because they are creating superior seeds. Farmers choose to use these restricted seeds because they make more money that way.

This effort of "open source seeds" is comparable to communal breeding, which hasn't been competitive to these breeding companies. It takes time and effort to develop these breeds, and an Open Source Seed Initiative would have to somehow replicate this advantage, probably by individual farmers taking a hit on returns from not using the most marketable seedstock in order to work on those lines.

>Breeders have "the power" to do all these licensing and patenting shenanigans because they are creating superior seeds.

'the power' also comes from lobbying and gaming the political system; it's not just product efficacy.

That's like saying John Deere has 'the power' to restrict right-to-repair because they make such a superior product, which is demonstrably false. They spend a large effort on securing their products' place in the market via legislation, propaganda, and the threat of discontinuation of service to the lower rung purchasers of their products. All of which are tactics which are effective for profiteering, but not that great morally or ethically -- especially given that we're talking about an industry that is attempting to feed the world with regards to this threads' discussion.

Do you have any idea about agricultural breeding?

There are some fundamental factors which are hard to overcome. Mendelian genetics more or less dictates that hybrid breeding schemes are superior, in the big picture, to line breeding. But those schemes require long term organizing and capital investment.

Which is why companies have any say in breeding at all. The Open Source Seed Initiative would need to replicate this through cooperation in a community.

Farmers don't have big margins. They can't afford to waste money on crops that underperform, for whatever reasons. They can't afford to lose money on produce that isn't marketable for whatever reason.

Companies don't eat food and don't starve if they go without it so their opinions as corporate entities are moot as far as I am concerned. If it is more profitable to let people die they will do so.

Companies are owned, operated and regulated by Human beings.

I'm not saying "companies" have never done wrong, but I think your attitude is way over the top. And there is no way an agricultural company will benefit by tanking production.

What the OSSI wants to do is to put more power into the hands of farmers, and thus avoid the farmers being squeezed by a near-monopoly of certain breeding companies. It's really about prizes and margins, not about total agricultural output.

Come to think of it, I guess the whole world has to be starving before there is a large-scale food shortage in the US of A.

Sure they are, but distributed consciousness and individual consciousness isn't the same thing. A corporation doesn't have a body and that dichotomy is often used by individuals to dissociate themselves from things they would not be willing to do on an interpersonal level. This is a general issue with organizations.

> Do you have any idea about agricultural breeding? [..] Which is why companies have any say in breeding at all.

Do you have any idea about industry lobbying to restrict the use of traditional seeds [1]? Companies use every trick they can to increase profits and control - a superior product is merely one of them. There is also lobbying, marketing, anti-competitive contracts... It beggars belief to be so naive as to think otherwise.

[1] http://www.arc2020.eu/european-seed-legislation-a-turning-po...

I wasn't talking about lobbying and anti-competitive efforts at all, but rather I pointed out that there are particular reasons those companies have a stake in this at all.

High performance breeding is a complex endeavor and as such requires capital, organization and time. OSSI will not be able to do it with less capital, organization or time, but they might put competitive pressure on such companies.

There is a catalog of varieties allowed for sale, all others are banned.

It takes a lot of money and lobbying to have a variety on the allowed list.

So farmers are forced to use certain varieties if they want to sell them, not because those varieties are inherently superior.

In fact some ancient varieties are better adapted to the local climate than modern one size fits all varieties, but because farmers are not allowed to sell them have almost disappeared (noncommercial growers and associations have kept some going).

> There is a catalog of varieties allowed for sale, all others are banned.

Is this for the US or EU? And it's the first I heard of this, do you have a source? I recall there was some awful EU seed initiative that imposed a heavy regulatory burden on all seeds, effectively making sure only those with large capital backing them could be marketed. But then some exemptions were made for 'small' sellers or somesuch, and the media promptly forgot all about it..

Its the EU.

I believe seed clubs are exempt:

"Our Seed Club:Due to really daft seed laws, many of our fantastic vegetable seeds can only be supplied to members of our Seed Club, because they are not on the 'approved list' of permitted vegetable varieties! But membership costs just one penny."


Just realised they're part of the OSSI too.

It's law in the EU for sure:


I'm not sure if the USDA has similar rules.

Actually often there is an abuse relation going on, certainly in developing countries where farmers don't know in the beginning that the "better" seeds they bought won't give them fertile seeds to reuse the next year - so they become dependent on buying new seeds each year.

Seems interesting. It's a shame that it has to come to this. Government regulation should be focused on the safety and well being of the majority of producers and consumers, it should not focus on how to help a small number of corporations to capture value from the system; that is not the job of the government.

Very good, related, article in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/07/opinion/sunda...

Is this some US specific problem? At least in EU we don't have this kind of lock down problems for seeds.

Actually we do have odd laws. You can circumvent them, as some sellers do, but they exist nonetheless.

Real seeds is a British company that sells exclusively non hybrid heirloom seeds. Good stuff and loads of weird crosses. However, they're not allowed to sell them to the public because they're not on an approved list of varieties. s So you pay a penny to join their seed club and essentially agree that you won't start a business selling crops.


> In the EU, there is actually a list of 'official' vegetable varieties. And a law governing seed sellers, which states that if a variety isn’t on the official list, then seed companies cannot ‘market’ the seed to anyone. In an immediate sense, this law only affects us, not you - because there are no laws at all governing the buying of seed or what vegetables anyone can grow. Selling unlisted seed? - that’s against the law. Buying unlisted seed? - that’s completely fine! So we should stress that for you it’s perfectly legal to buy any seed you like, plant it, grow it, and do whatever you want with it.

Do you know the history of the "allowed seeds" law? I assume greed is in there somewhere, but there's usually some other bizarre or novel justification for that sort of law.




Some of the justification I can see is environmental/economical. As per my sibling post - it's there to make sure that a rogue seller doesn't accidentally or intentionally cripple national food production by introducing a crop that is prone to disease and infects/crosses with everything.

However there is also "breeder's right" which is more debatable.

I'm not sure what actually happened (IANAL), the original proposal came under a lot of fire from retailers and gardeners: http://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedlaw2.html

Whats an "approved list of varieties" for commercial crops? Sounds ominous.

You can find some more information here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-lists-of-agricultural-a...

Note that there's no restriction on the buyer, you can buy whatever you like. But in order to sell seeds to the public you can only sell registered varieties.

I would guess this is to prevent crops which are disease prone or invasive from spreading. For agricultural crops the fee includes mandatory testing. You wouldn't want the country's cereal crop to get decimated because someone started selling dodgy seeds. Having read a bit of the legislation it also looks like it's been heavily lobbied by businesses.

It's not particularly hard to get stuff added to the list, but it's pretty expensive. An amateur heritage variety costs £100-175 to register. So someone like Fothergill's or Thomson and Morgan don't have any trouble, but a small retailer might struggle.

This is really cool! I hope this will happen with medicine at some point in life...

Most medicines are already "open source" in the sense that their patents have expired, the details are known, and any chemistry lab can make them. The problem is selling them legally as medicine! A generic medicine needs FDA approval confirming that it is biologically equivalent to an already-approved drug, which requires a human trial. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbreviated_New_Drug_Applicati...

This process is apparently easier in the EU, but both systems are so complex that it's hard to tell exactly what makes it easier.

I never have been big on planting, and didn't really know theee was an issue with companies holding large amounts of seeds...

Sooo am I the only one who thinks if you spend millions on creating a special breed you should be able to control who gets to use it? Otherwise where's the incentive for me to spend the money?

Of course you should be able to patent it. You should also be able to give it away for free. You should not be allowed to ask the government to prevent other people from doing what they want with their seeds.

You don't have to believe otherwise to support this initiative as far as I can tell. It's not about restricting the rights of the patenters but rather giving farmers an alternative choice.

In what way does open source prevent you from attempting to do that?

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