By Patrick van Zwanenberg and Anabel Marin, Steps America Latina
Last week, at a small ceremony in Argentina, seeds were transferred from researchers to farmers for the first time under a new kind of open source contract.
Over the last eight months, STEPS America Latina has been busy discussing and designing Bioleft, an open source seed transfer contract and web-based platform to record transfers of seed material. The project, in close collaboration with seed breeders and users, is supported by the PATHWAYS Network research project on transformations to sustainability.
In the small ceremony, involving agricultural producers and plant breeders from Argentina and Uruguay, the first seed material to be transferred with the Bioleft contract was exchanged. The seed material was a novel variety of white sweet clover (Melilotus albus), bred by Gustavo Schrauf and his colleagues at the faculty of Agronomy in the University of Buenos Aires. Gustavo has named the new variety Ubuntu, a Southern African word that means a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.
At the event, the new seeds were transferred to representatives of the Federación de Organizaciones Nucleadas en la Agricultura Familiar (FONAF) and the Organización de las Naciones y Pueblos Indígenas en Argentina (ONPIA). FONAF and ONPIA will distribute and multiply the seed (which produces animal fodder) amongst their members, who are small-scale family farmers.
How Bioleft works
Bioleft is like open source software or the Creative Commons licence used by authors and artists, but for seeds. The Bioleft clause in the transfer agreement means that those receiving the seed material cannot restrict anyone else’s access to the germplasm, or any subsequent derivatives of that germplasm, for further breeding and seed development.
This contrasts with the more restrictive intellectual property rules and private contracts that are sometimes applied to seeds in Argentina (and elsewhere). It challenges the dominance of large seed firms which, by using patents, can effectively take exclusive ownership of some seed varieties – for example, as they have done with elite maize germplasm originally bred by public sector institutions.
A condition of the contract is that the same clause must be added to all future transfers that contain Bioleft material. This means that the genetic material within the Ubuntu variety becomes part of a protected commons. It will be available to all who agree not to exclusively appropriate it in ways that restrict access for further research and breeding (for example by attempting to patent parts of the seed material).
The open source principles behind Bioleft are appealing to both the public sector seed breeders and small farmers organizations we have been working with, principally because both groups want to ensure that useful seed varieties and traits bred by the public sector and by farmers themselves are not captured by large seed firms in the future, which would restrict their use.
Using the web for participative breeding
As well as designing the licence, Bioleft has also set up a web-based platform to record and trace the transfers of Bioleft seed material.
An unexpected idea was to use this web platform for something else as well: to facilitate participative breeding. This idea came from an extension worker called Juan Pablo Lurman, based at the National Institute for Agricultural Research (who was sub-secretary for family farming in the Ministry of Agriculture under the previous government).
Juan Pablo suggested that small farmers could multiply varieties developed by public sector breeders, transferred under a Bioleft contract, in a range of different agro-ecological settings. They could then use the web platform to provide digital information about how those varieties were performing. Essentially, these are field trials without the seed breeder needing to be physically present.
In principle, varieties could be tested in scores of locations, all round the country, in ways that would not be possible for plant breeders, who lack the resources of the private sector. The Bioleft transfer agreement made this week between the Faculty of Agronomy and FONAF anticipates just such an arrangement.
Building new links between producers and breeders
Other plant breeders and farmers also suggested that the Bioleft web platform could be used to foster linkages between small producers and seed breeders in ways that are currently very difficult.
For example, university-based plant breeders often have little knowledge of the agronomic needs of small farmers in distant locations. And public sector breeders often develop potentially useful new varieties that sit in storage in their university departments, as they have no way to deliver those varieties to small producers, in the many instances in which markets are too small for private seed firms to want to become involved.
Just as with decentralized open source software production, Juan Pablo and others involved in our project envisage Bioleft being used to facilitate peer-to-peer seed innovation – between university-based seed breeders, farmers and local public sector agronomists. This would create useful varieties that are more diverse then those created within mainstream seed firm-based innovation systems.
These varieties could never be exclusively appropriated by those firms, and given the numbers of users involved in innovation, could even out-compete the products of those mainstream systems.
How did these ideas come about?
The Bioleft project, and the ‘Transformations to Sustainability’ programme that funds it, have a strong emphasis – on ‘co-producing’ knowledge and action.
Without this emphasis on ‘co-production’, the idea of using Bioleft for participative breeding and linking farmers and breeders would not have become clear, or been pursued so readily and energetically.
Our own research team has been built with people from multiple disciplines, including agronomy, intellectual property law, science policy, economics, journalism, and film, and who are based across academic, public policy and NGO backgrounds. And critically, from the outset, we have involved people who breed, use and govern seeds in defining and establishing the remit and purpose of our research project, and in subsequently developing our proposed intervention.
Both Gustavo and Juan Pablo, for example, have effectively become members of our research team, attending regular meetings, and developing and pursuing ideas in the same way as the core members. This has not only opened up ideas and possibilities that we would not otherwise have recognized, and ensured that the project addresses issues that are meaningful. Critically, it has also meant that our project has been able to engage and enroll a much larger number, and wider variety of, people, and to acquire a momentum that a more traditional research project would have struggled to attain.
Next month, for example, FONAF and ONPIA will be organizing a seed fair over three days in Tucumán, in the North of Argentina, on behalf of the Bioleft project. Hundreds of small farmers are expected to attend, and we will be using the Bioleft platform to record and facilitate exchanges of unregistered seed varieties. This kind of event would just not have been possible without the active involvement of people from FONAF and ONPIA in our project.
Taking the co-production of knowledge and intervention seriously has its challenges, of course. Our project has changed direction several times from the outset, for example, and this has posed problems, for example, in recruiting the right people. And as researchers we have had to relinquish, at least in part, control over agendas and directions, which can be difficult. But overall, the experience so far has been extraordinarily fruitful.