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Open-Source Seeds Movement


Farmers have innovated and shared seeds without any intellectual property rights (IPR) for centuries. They also haven’t sought exclusive rights over seeds and germplasm to prevent others from innovating on the seeds. However, with the emergence of the global IPR regime over plant varieties, there was a dire need to ‘open-source’ seeds.


GS III: Indian Economy

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What are plant-breeders’ rights and patents?
  2. How is IP protected in agriculture?
  3. What are ‘open-source seeds’?

What are plant-breeders’ rights and patents?

  • Plant breeders’ rights (PBR) and patents have been conferred to developers of new plant varieties due to the advent of hybrid seeds and scientific plant-breeding.
  • In the U.S. and other national IPR regimes, rights-holders can legally enforce their intellectual property rights (IPR) by demanding royalties on seeds and restricting unauthorised use of seeds to develop new varieties.
  • The establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1994 led to a global IPR regime over plant varieties through the Trade-Related IPR Agreement (TRIPS), requiring countries to provide at least one form of IP protection.
  • The consolidation of rights in the seed sector has raised concerns about the freedom to innovate as the private sector, rather than public-sector institutions, leads the genetic revolution in agriculture.
  • Seeds are mostly availed as hybrids or protected by strong IPRs, unlike the Green Revolution which was spearheaded by public-sector institutions.

How is IP protected in agriculture?

  • There are two major modes of IPR protection in agriculture — plant-breeders’ rights and patents.
  • Together, they restrict farmers’ rights and the freedom to develop new varieties using germplasm from IP-protected varieties, and have thus increased the number of IP-protected plant varieties.
  • The high prices of genetically modified seeds and IP claims triggered many problems and issues, including the State’s intervention in Bt cotton seeds in India.
  • As public sector breeding declined and the private sector began to dominate the seed sector, the need for alternatives became keenly felt.
  • This is when the success of open-source software inspired a solution.
  • In 1999, plant-breeder named T.E. Michaels suggested an approach to seeds innovation based on the principles of open-source software.

What are ‘open-source seeds’?

  • In 2002, the concept of open-source seeds was proposed independently by Boru Douthwaite and another individual, which was later developed by scholars and civil society members
  • German NGO Agrecol and the US-based open source seeds initiative followed with similar initiatives, each with its own unique approach
  • The open-source model aims to promote the free exchange of seeds and plant varieties, with users agreeing not to patent the seeds bought under the license
  • In India, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad, developed a model that includes an agreement between CSA and the recipient of the seed/germplasm
  • Under India’s Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Act 2001, farmers can register ‘farmer varieties’ and have the right to reuse, replant, and exchange seeds, but they cannot breed and trade in varieties protected under the Act for commercial purposes
  • The open-source approach has potential applications in farmer-led seed conservation and distribution systems in India, particularly for traditional-variety conservation and sharing initiatives
  • Open-source principles can help overcome challenges such as lack of uniformity and poor quality in traditional varieties, by facilitating testing, improvisation, and adoption
  • The adoption of open-source seeds has the potential to enhance India’s food security and climate resilience

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024