Software developers—and even consumers—are familiar with the open-source movement. Open-source projects, like the popular Firefox web browser, are generally developed in a public, cooperative effort. The copyright holder “opens” the consumer’s right to modify the “source” product and distribute it to others as long as the result is also “open” for others to do the same.

The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) follows the same principles for sharing and distributing seeds among plant breeders and farmers. According to a recent publication in Crop Science, the last 100 years have witnessed a dramatic transition in how plant genetic material is controlled.

“Humans have been practicing plant breeding since the earliest instances of plant domestication,” says Claire Luby, department of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “They selected for increased yield, improved flavor, pest resistance and more.”

However, over time, plant breeding moved from the farm field and into the university and business setting. Legislation passed in the U.S. and Europe has affected the sharing of seeds and germplasm.

“Sharing seed among breeders has been rapidly eroded,” said Luby. It’s even affected the ability of farmers to save seeds. Far-reaching intellectual property rights on seeds is a primary driver. For example, Luby notes that patents typically prevent the use of seeds in research or for breeding new varieties of the plant for 20 years.

“The incorporation of patented traits in plant varieties has resulted in seeds that farmers cannot legally save for replanting,” says Luby. In addition, breeders cannot use this seed as parent material to develop new crop strains. The immediate result is fewer choices of seed for research. The ultimate result could be a decrease in crop diversity.

These concerns brought together a coalition of plant breeders, farmers, seed companies, nonprofit organizations, and policy makers to form OSSI.  The organization’s goals are to promote sharing and exchange of seed, revitalize public plant breeding, increase cooperation between farmers and plant scientists, and support a decentralized seed industry.

Small farmers are the biggest beneficiaries of OSSI’s efforts. “The independent farmer has long been the basis of food security for local communities,” says Luby. With current restrictions on seeds, these farmers are unable to plant new crops without purchasing new seed. Environmental disasters or economic hardship can result in no crops if the farmer has no access to seeds. “[OSSI] allows the farmer to plant again if the patented seeds are unavailable or unaffordable,” Luby explains.

“A key tool for achieving these goals,” says Luby, “is a pledge to preserve the unencumbered exchange for breeding and research purposes.” This pledge also gives farmers the rights to save and replant seed. It is uncertain if such a pledge is legally enforceable. However, it offered OSSI the best avenue to achieve its goals.

For plant breeders who wish to participate in OSSI, technology transfer offices can pose obstacles. However, Luby says, “So far, several institutions have been supportive of the effort.”

In 2014, OSSI released 37 cultivars of 14 crop species under its open-source pledge. The organization plans to step up education and outreach activities to promote its goals. Although Luby acknowledges it’s too early to measure the impact of OSSI on crop diversity, it’s likely to be a natural outcome of the efforts to make seed banks widely available. “We are working to establish networks both within the U.S. and internationally,” Luby adds