Marc Redorta May 10, 2016
Imagine that you go to a restaurant and you ask for a salad. The waiter serves you a dish that looks quite out of the ordinary, with lettuce, tomato, carrot, sweetcorn, peppers and onion, and a lot of intellectual property. How do you feel? Practically all the ingredients in the salad in front of you are patented. In fact the seeds that were planted weeks before were patented and they have grown into, among other ingredients, the tasty pepper that you are about to bite into. This means that each seed belonged to a company and it cannot be copied or reproduced, nor even shared, even if someone who is starving needs it.
And it doesn’t stop here. Only three companies share 53% of world seed sales. So would not be difficult to find something in this salad that belongs to Monsanto, DuPont or Syngenta, the three multinationals that dominate the market1. But why are there companies that invest huge amounts of money in patenting a pepper plant, for example?
For thousands of years, farmers have stored and kept as a kind of common heritage. They exchanged them and tried to improve different species, to make them more resistant or improve the taste of the food. All almonds, for example, were originally bitter. Almond trees created small doses of cyanide to protect their fruit from birds, and if it had not, the plant would not have survived. However, one day a ‘freak’ tree produced sweet almonds. A farmer made the discovery and used its seeds to grow a product which now yields almost 2 million tonnes of almonds per year2.
In the early 20th century, the first discoveries in the field of genetics led to an exponential growth in the number of plant varieties. Although public institutions limited their actions to classifying them and placing them at the disposal of farmers. However, during the 1980s those companies that had invested large amounts of money in genetic engineering and biotechnology put pressure on the authorities to protect their creations. As such, from 1991 onwards, farmers could not swap or sell patented seeds, and even reusing them (i.e. using seeds produced from a patented plant) is now strictly limited. Today, hundreds of new seed patents are requested and companies do not hesitate to initiate judicial proceedings against those farmers who do not respect the copyright of the products they use. This situation means that there are no free (unpatented) varieties of crops such as sweetcorn or soya today.
Given this scenario, in May 2014, a group of investigators from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented the Open Source Seed Initiative. This is a bank of free seeds that can be used by anyone or any company. Nobody can claim intellectual property rights over these seeds or the seeds obtained from plants grown from them. Two years of investigation have led to the presentation of an initial catalogue with 37 varieties, however work is taking place to expand them.
One of the promotors of the initiative, Irwin Goldman, said, in Fast Company magazine, that the project is inspired in the open source computer movement and that it aims to guarantee diversity and access to food products made from plants3. Goldman stated, “Anything that contributes to the diversity of the food system is good for anyone who eats, as we do not know what farming needs we will be facing in the future”. Another member of the Open Source Seed Initiative, Jack Kloppenburg, affirmed to the British newspaper The Guardian “large producers are aware that the control of seeds means controlling almost the entire food production chain”4.
In little over a year, over 300 producers of organic seeds, from 14 different countries have shown an interest in the project and many of them have included open source seeds in their catalogues. This means that today it is still possible to eat a completely copyright-free salad.
In recent years, globalisation and economies of scale have practically wiped small producers, who could not compete with market prices, off the map. And this statement could be applied equally to either a pepper or to business management software. Things however, are beginning to change. The cooperative economy and open source business models propose an alternative based on competing less and sharing more. They propose forgetting about competition and focusing on improving proprietary products as fast as possible. Their idea involves less investment with lawyers and more in engineers.
The benefits of doing business like this are indisputable, as investment is concentrated in areas where it is really needed and improvements are made quickly, while the problems are analysed from a wide-range of sources, product prices are accessible and variety is guaranteed.
This final factor is highly important. People, companies and groups are different. And this diversity is what enriches us, although at the same time, it creates specific and unique requirements. In the ERP sector, for example, those business management tools made by large-scale manufacturers such as Microsoft, SAP or SAGE are designed to meet the needs of a specific company profile. But who really responds to this theoretical profile in real-world terms? Simpson’s Paradox explains that the results of a statistical analysis may lead to a false interpretation. For example, we could say that the average number of employees in the companies of an area is eight, even though no company has 8 staff on its workforce: so your company, which does not have 8 employees may end up using a Microsoft tool for companies with 8 employees. Wouldn’t it be better to have a tool designed and created specifically for your company, which applies directly to its needs? Just like the Open Source Seed Initiative, at NaN-tic we work to guarantee a diversity of options in company feeding and growth.
Article published on the blog of OpenExpo on March, 2nd 2016.