Experimentation to action: how Bioleft is helping to grow an open source seed culture

by Almendra Cremaschi, Patrick van Zwanenberg & Anabel Marin

The seed breeding initiative Bioleft has received funding to work with more varieties of seeds in Argentina, and to develop a ‘sister’ initiative in Mexico.

Bioleft is an ‘open source’, distributed seed breeding initiative that Cenit researchers, in close collaboration with public sector plant breeders, lawyers, and farmers’ organizations, have been developing in Argentina over the past two years.

The initiative emerged through our work within the STEPS Consortium’s Pathways Network project, which has been experimenting with co-producing inclusive, practical solutions to key sustainability challenges.

The idea behind Bioleft is to enable a network of plant breeders and farmers to exchange, test and collaboratively improve seeds at multiple sites, and in doing so create the kernel of an alternative seed innovation system that addresses some of the many challenges posed by an oligopolistic seed sector.

We have developed three important things.

  • legal contracts for releasing and exchanging seeds, based an open-source principles, much like the Creative Commons licenses used by writers and artists, but which in this case enforces the continued sharing of knowledge and seed material.
  • a web based platform for recording transfers of seed material and, and for supporting a process of collaborative seed improvement, between plant breeders and farmers
  • and most importantly a community of public sector plant breeders and farming organizations who now co-own Bioleft and are keen to experiment with it.

Two new recent sources of funding mean that we can continue to develop and extend Bioleft.

A new Bioleft for Mexico

The first project is to establish a new initiative in Mexico, which will draw from the experiences of Bioleft in Argentina.

One new project, funded by the Global Consortium for Sustainability Outcomes, will be led by our colleagues at the STEPS North America Hub, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and Arizona State University.

Researchers at the UNAM Institute of Ecology’s Laboratorio Nacional de Ciencias de la Sostenibilidad will be working with state organizations and activists to develop a sister initiative to Bioleft for Mexico.

More varieties, better seeds

A second project, funded by the US Conservation Food and Health Foundation, will allow us to put Bioleft into practice in Argentina. We will be trialing the process of collaborative seed improvement within three different farmer-breeder networks:

  • open pollinated maize varieties bred by researchers working at the National Agricultural Research Service, and tested by farmers belonging to an organization representing organic producers;
  • low-temperature-tolerant fodder crop varieties developed by the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), and tested by farmers that are part of an organization representing agro-ecological producers;
  • tomato varieties ‘recovered’ by UBA breeders, and tested by family farmers that are part of an organization representing small peri-urban producers supplying fruit and vegetables to Buenos Aires, and by producers that work with biodynamic agriculture.

Why is Bioleft needed?

Commercial seed firms generally ignore the needs of these kinds of farmers. Small family farmers usually have no choice but to buy seeds that have been bred for large commercial production, and that only work well with a package of chemical inputs.

Likewise, producers in ‘niche’ markets, such as organic farmers, can’t find suitable seeds, and so have to try and breed them informally within their own networks.

By connecting those kinds of farmers with the advanced scientific capabilities of plant breeders, the Bioleft initiative seeks to support the development of more suitable seeds that support small farmers and more diverse and sustainable forms of agriculture.

Tastier tomatoes

Last month, we began to exchange seeds in all three breeder-farmer networks. The ‘recovered’ tomato project, led by Fernando Carrari and colleagues at UBA´s faculty of Agronomy, is a great example.

Tomatoes originated in the Andean region, but there are now only a small handful of varieties of commercially available tomatoes in Argentina. They are hybrid, which means that the seeds cannot be saved and replanted, and they are expensive. They are also relatively tasteless, because commercialization has favoured traits that are high yielding and don’t bruise easily when they’re moved around or stored.

Fernando and his colleagues collected over 160 ‘forgotten’ varieties of tomato that used to be grown in Argentina in the first two thirds of the twentieth century, but have now disappeared from use. Indeed, in most cases, the researchers could only obtain specimens from seed banks located in the USA and Germany.

poster
A poster advertising the initiative

First, the university multiplied the recovered varieties on their farm. After enough fruit was grown, it organized public tasting sessions at a monthly agro-ecological market held on the faculty of Agronomy’s campus, based on several hectares of farmland in the middle of the city. These tasting sessions revealed the most popular varieties in terms of taste, texture and smell. The faculty is now offering packets of seeds from those selected varieties to anyone, and these will be transferred with a contract containing a Bioleft clause.

Several hundred individuals turned up on the campus last month to receive the recovered tomato seeds, and become part of Bioleft. Many organizations ranging from regional universities to municipal agricultural co-ops, to farmers’ movements, also want to grow the recovered varieties. The university contract asks growers to return double the quantity of seeds that they have been given to plant. This will help the university maintain populations of the tomatoes.

Some users will also be recording information about the performance of the new seeds on Bioleft’s digital platform, and they will become one of our experimental networks of collaboration between farmers and breeders.

Challenging business models

The Bioleft clause will also mean that all the tomato varieties become part of a ‘protected commons’. This means that those varieties – and crucially any and all new varieties that are derived from those seeds in the future – cannot be exclusively appropriated.

This is important because exclusive appropriation is increasingly the basis of the business models adopted by the large seed companies (whether via technical means such as hybridization, or by relying on restrictive intellectual property law).

In contrast to this, Bioleft-protected seed material – and the knowledge that material embodies – will always be available for further breeding by anyone, boosting diversity in both the crop and farming system.

Who’s interested in Bioleft?

Developing a practical intervention like Bioleft is a novel (and time consuming!) experience for most of us in Cenit. Like most social scientists, we’re used to analyzing and writing about what other groups of people do, rather than doing new things ourselves.

One of the many interesting aspects of this project is how the practical demonstration of a novel sociotechnical practice (even if so far largely in experimental form) helps to generate interest, and to enroll people, in ways that merely writing or talking about a new idea could never match.

Demonstrating Bioleft has not only encouraged individual plant breeders, farming organizations and an interested public to join the initiative, but it has also helped to persuade parts of the regulatory system that governs the production and use of seeds to experiment with us.

For example, the government agency responsible for registering seed varieties is now keen to find a way to allow ‘informal’ seed varieties released with a Bioleft license to become legally registered – something that would undoubtedly be far more difficult if Bioleft was just an idea on paper.  Likewise, the Faculty of Agronomy at UBA is considering releasing other kinds of novel plant material using the Bioleft licence.

These are important potential ‘regulatory’ shifts. Alternative, more sustainable sociotechnical practices, like Bioleft, often anticipate institutions (understood as rules and norms) that do not yet exist. By persuading bodies with regulatory responsibility to experiment with us, and perhaps adapt their rules, we increase the chances of Bioleft working successfully.

Of course, writing and talking about new ideas remains important in trying to persuade the academic community, policy-makers and other stakeholders about how best to think about problems, and about how they might act on them. But by doing so, alongside socio-technical experimentation, those activities become a more powerful source of agency.

One comment:

  1. That’s a great initiative. Need many more such initiatives to come up with an idea on how bio left can help grow an open source seed culture.

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