It's Time to Start Thinking About Tomatoes Like Computer Code

A group of breeders wants plant genetics to be open source.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There’s a tomato called Rutgers, a variety that was favored by New Jersey’s canning industry in the 1930s, when Campbell Soup, Heinz, and Hunt’s were all sourcing fruit from the Garden State’s 36,000 acres of vines. Today, the processing tomato varieties offered by Seminis, which was the largest seed company in the world before Monsanto acquired it, have nondescript names such as Apt 410, Hypeel 108, and PS 345.

The changes that occurred in plant breeding and the seed business between the days of Rutgers’ popularity and the industry’s current preference for high-functioning varieties with far less evocative names tells the story of how our vegetables became privatized in recent decades. As tomato names go, Rutgers is no Black Krim or Mortgage Lifter, but its collegiate inspiration speaks of a tradition of plant breeding led by public institutions that has largely disappeared.

Before 1982, land-grant universities were at the heart of plant breeding. That year, federal legislation was passed that encouraged licensing deals between private industry and public institutions, increasing the role corporations played in developing plant varieties. The Bayh-Dole Act was followed by plant varieties’ increasingly falling under intellectual property laws, further changing the balance. Instead of Rutgers University developing a tomato that’s good for New Jersey’s climate, you have industry pushing for tomatoes that are good for profits. Fittingly, a group of plant scientists from a land-grant school, the University of Wisconsin, is trying to change the balance.

With last week's inaugural release of seeds for 29 varieties of 14 crops, the Open Source Seed Initiative is trying to bring plant breeding back into the commons—just one of the many terms it's adopting from the open-source coding community. On its website, the group writes that “genetic resources—in the form of seeds—are going to be set aside for humanity to use in any way it sees fit. These genetic resources cannot be patented or otherwise legally protected, making them essentially available in perpetuity in a protected commons.”

What that means is the seeds the group released can never be limited by any kind of intellectual property protection. “I liken it to a genetic easement. Or a national park for seeds,” says U.W.-Madison horticulturist Irwin L. Goldman. Like a national park, this protection needs to be funded, meaning that the curious backyard gardener will have to pay to receive seeds—$25 for a collection containing 15 of the open-source varieties, money that will support “farmers and any breeders committed to releasing varieties forever protected in the public domain.”

Like open-source code, the genetic material, the seed’s equivalent of 0s and 1s, is in the public domain, and breeders can use it to develop new varieties of, say, sweet peppers or carrots. In turn, those new vegetables will be required to remain in the public domain. But just as you can walk into a bookstore and buy a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, neither of which is covered by copyright protection, the seeds can still be sold. High Mowing Organic Seeds and Wild Garden Seed will soon be selling OSSI varieties too.

Framing the seed debate in coding terms may be a recent development, but the idea of public access and the freedom to develop new varieties based on previously existing vegetables without running into arcane copyright laws is as old as the science of horticulture. Rutgers is an open-pollinated variety, meaning the seeds will grow more Rutgers tomato plants—its biology is anathema to copyright protection. A farmer could save the seeds to grow next year's crop, or a breeder could cross it with another variety to make something new. Apt 410 is a hybrid, the offspring of two parent varieties that can only be grown from seeds sold or licensed by Seminis. If OSSI takes off, plant breeding might once again start looking like the former rather than the latter.