Open-source seeds challenge Monsanto, support International Day of Farmers’ Struggles

Originally posted on IATP’s Think Forward:

Posted April 16, 2014 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Yesterday, Thursday, April 17, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) released over 29 seed varieties into the global commons and humanity’s “moral economy.” This new initiative hopes to provide a counterweight to private patenting of seeds, which has undermined farmers’ rights around the world.

OSSI is composed of faculty, breeders, students and supporters from Washington State University, Oregon State University, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Lupine Knoll Farm, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wild Garden Seeds, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, among other members and allies. The group has sought a way to support the innovative efforts, traditions, and rights of those who breed seeds, by pioneering a system whereby plant varieties could be released into a “protected commons”: a commons populated by those who agree to share but effectively inaccessible to those who do not—a necessary tool in light of private corporate interests’ persistent and too-often successful attempts to lock away elements of humanity’s common agricultural heritage behind patents and other forms of kleptocratic intellectual property.

Seeds and plant varieties represent the work of millions of years of evolution, and in many cases, thousands of years of work by farmers, communities and cultures to develop useful, pleasing, nourishing and diverse sources of food and fodder. Gene Giants (e.g., Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont) have too often come in to expropriate and restrict the ability of anyone else to use and build on whatever supposed innovations these companies have made. While many dedicated and talented breeders work for these and other private concerns, making new varieties that may generate profit for such outsized and largely amoral corporations, their work ends up locking up elements of communities and humanity’s common heritage, removing germplasm from the commons and charging the rest of humanity for the privilege. Further, public breeding programs in the United States have become increasingly marginalized and poorly supported, with funding increasingly abandoning the kinds of programs that build the commons and the common good, in order that a handful of companies can fence off the commons and charge us for that “benefit.” This is all the more richly ironic given that patent regimes have not increased innovation towards diversity in plant breeding, according to the most thorough survey to date. In fact, while 11 of 42 common crops saw dramatic increases in diversity, the diversity of the other 31 crops decreased by 60 percent between 1903 and 2004!

Many cultures traditionally saved and shared seeds and germplasm, allowing people to constantly innovate on each other’s discoveries, while also maintaining a diversity of varieties that could be adapted to regional or cultural needs, and to current needs such as resistance to drought and climate variations due to global climate change. Corporate agricultural interests profit from conformity, scale and claiming ownership in the commons, increasing the risks of devastating pest and crop disease outbreaks as genetically uniform commercial crops all exhibit the same vulnerabilities (echoing the Irish Potato Famine precipitated by potato blight), rather than the resistance found in diverse populations.

In honor of the International Day of Farmers’ Struggles in Defense of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Seeds (see La Via Campesina’s information page), OSSI is releasing 29 varieties of germplasm under the Open Source Seed Pledge:

This Open Source Seed Pledge is intended to ensure your freedom to use the seed contained herein in any way you choose, and to make sure those freedoms are enjoyed by all subsequent users. By opening this packet, you pledge that you will not restrict others’ use of these seeds and their derivatives by patents, licenses, or any other means. You pledge that if you transfer these seeds or their derivatives you will acknowledge the source of these seeds and accompany your transfer with this pledge.

These first varieties have been produced by professional plant breeders from independent businesses and university extension, with the intent of releasing and keeping these varieties into the commons for all people to use in perpetuity. Current legal protections (e.g., Patent law) is targeted at protecting only private rights to exclude people from using certain things; there are no legal provisions for protecting the inclusionof all people as potential users of our common heritage of seed varieties and knowledge. Despite this lacking legal structure, OSSI seeks to promote a moral economy in solidarity with peasants, farmers, gardeners and eaters all over the world, where farmers and breeders may share or sell seeds they have developed, but the biological essence (the underlying genetic material and potential, and seeds reproduced from the original seeds) may be used in perpetuity by all, for their own planting or for further breeding, refinement or alteration as serves the needs of any given individual, community or peoples.

OSSI seeks to support and stand in solidarity with farmers and farmer-breeders everywhere, as well as other citizens—eaters all—by protecting our common heritage from those who would lock it away. Agroecology recognizes diversity and sovereignty as key elements of a sustainable agricultural system. Diversity is the very building block of evolution and adaptation, and keeping germplasm in the commons allows all communities the maximum ability to respond the climate change; variability over time, over regions, and even over localities; and to varying tastes, preferences and needs.

We have yet to see if large corporations will seek to challenge or appropriate the materials placed under this moral commitment of OSSI and its allies to open source seeds, but if they do, we hope we can count on you to side with family farmers, independent seed companies, and the protection of a common biological heritage that should belong to all rather than generate a profit for a very few, and to stand up to those who view sharing this heritage as theft, rather than viewing their enclosure of that heritage as the real and more heinous act of thievery.

IATP particularly thanks Jack Kloppenburg, Irwin Goldman and Claire Luby for their dedication and efforts toward this first release. Our thanks and congratulations also go to OSSI comrades releasing varieties under the Open Source Pledge this April 17: Kevin Murphy and Stephen Jones (Washington State University), Irwin Goldman (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Tom Stearns (High Mowing Organic Seeds), Pat Hayes (Oregon State University), Jonathan Spero (Lupine Knoll Farm) and Frank Morton (Wild Garden Seed). You can find a list of the varieties being released, information on the launch event and more at opensourceseedinitiative.orgLike Open Source Seed Initiative on Facebook to keep up to date with the latest developments. Go there, learn more, and contact OSSI to talk about releasing your own variety under the OSSI pledge!

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New research project on biodiversity and food security

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

By Joern Fischer

With only one final signature still missing, I’d like to announce a new project that I will be coordinating as of the middle of 2014. It’s entitled “Identifying Social-Ecological System Properties Benefiting Biodiversity and Food Security”. It will be funded via an ERC Consolidator Grant, announced earlier this year here.

erc summary

What will the project do?

Its goal is to develop and test a global theory that explains which properties of social-ecological systems benefit both biodiversity conservation and food security (and which may benefit one but not the other). To this end, the project will use a multi-scale approach that balances the likely trade-offs between depth and generality (see Figure above). Using a specifically developed typology of social-ecological system properties, the project will investigate rural landscapes as social-ecological systems at three levels of detail. First, drawing on expert knowledge, the project will develop a global database of…

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Sustainability as a by-product of contentment?

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to reflect on some thoughts articulated in an essay that I recently came across. The essay is by Jorge Guerra González, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lueneburg. It’s in German, but Jorge translated its title as: Sustainability is out of reach: Wrong paths, wrong beliefs—and yet… light at the end of the tunnel? (available for download here).

I’ll try to summarise some of the key points here. Because some of the arguments are nuanced, I will probably get parts wrong … but here is what I understood the key points to be. In a nutshell, this essay tries to analyse why sustainability efforts appear to be failing. One key argument is that people are ultimately driven by their emotions; and that they lack incentives to act sustainably because the emotional benefits of doing so are not obvious. The essay suggests that outside interventions…

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On trusting experts, climate change research, and scientific translators

Originally posted on mathbabe:

Stephanie Tai has written a thoughtful response on Jordan Ellenberg’s blog to my discussion with Jordan regarding trusting experts (see my Nate Silver post and the follow-up post for more context).

Trusting experts

Stephanie asks three important questions about trusting experts, which I paraphrase here:

  1. What does it take to look into a model yourself? How deeply must you probe?
  2. How do you avoid being manipulated when you do so?
  3. Why should we bother since stuff is so hard and we each have a limited amount of time?

I must confess I find the first two questions really interesting and I want to think about them, but I have a very little patience with the last question.

Here’s why:

  • I’ve seen too many people (individual modelers) intentionally deflect investigations into models by setting them up as so hard that it’s not worth it (or at least it seems not worth…

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Deboer v. Snyder – Day 9 (Last day) closing arguments, part 1

Originally posted on Deboer v. Snyder - Through a Lawyer's Live Lens:

Plaintiffs renewed their Daubert objections to State’s witnesses Price, Regnerus and Allen, to recognize them as experts.

State renewed their motion in limine to exclude the second parent adoption issue.

Plaintiffs’ closing delivered by Kenneth Mogill

“The promise of equality is the promise of America”  15,000 gay and lesbian people living in Michigan, 2600 same sex couples and 5300 children of those people are being deprived of equality in Michigan. They have been subjected to pervasive institutionalized discrimination.  The legacy of discrimination remains.  The door is barred from entry into one of the most cherished institutions because they love the wrong kind of person.  Right to marry is a fundamental right.  Denial of that right is denial of due process under the Constitution.

No other group is required to establish parenting competency as a condition of marriage.  The denial of the right to marry is a denial of equal protection.

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Staph, Lies and Videotape

Originally posted on fieldquestions:

A new article in Clinical Infectious Diseases reports on an investigation of staph contamination (Staphylococcus aureus) on CAFO beef, pork, chicken and turkey in grocery stores in 5 US cities.  Staph was found on 47% of the meat samples, but what is particularly troubling is that over half of the staph samples were multidrug resistant.  It is clear that the CAFO’s are incubating drug resistance, and doing it quickly.  (For instance, fluoroquinolone antibiotics were used in in chicken CAFO’s from 1995-2005 and fluoroquinolone-resistant staph were common on the chicken samples — but not on the other meats).

(Multidrug resistant does not necessarily mean methicillin resistant, as in MRSA; this study only found 3 MRSA-contaminated packages out of 136 tested.)

If you are wondering when we are going to stop making meat “cheap” by steadily eroding the power of antibiotics, you could have gotten a partial answer from…

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Economic development can only buy happiness up to a ‘sweet spot’ of $36,000 GDP per person


Interesting. Previous analyses I’ve seen show a sloping off of happiness vs. income, but I’m not sure if they used PPP (purchasing power parity) as opposed to per capita GDP. (Roughly speaking, PPP adjusts GDP for differences in costs of living different countries.)
Some (achem, Pielke, achem) have thought of this saturating function as being “disproven” because a recent paper saw that the relation was linear — if you used a log scale for income! Suffice it to say, I’m willing to believe that happiness continues increasing at higher incomes but requires exponential increases at higher incomes, but (a) that still mitigates against allocating resources to the most well-off as you’re definitionally getting less “bang for your buck”, and (b) all biological systems have a saturation point, so (some) economists’ unhinged fantasies aside, a saturating function *must* represent happiness’s relationship to income.
This piece implies the relationship might flip at some point, which I would also find plausible.

Originally posted on Entrepreneurship Matters:

Once countries reach around $20,400 GDP per capita, the increase in happiness that higher wealth brings is less obvious. Between this level and the very highest GDP per capita level ($54,000), the probability of reporting the highest level of life satisfaction changes by no more than two per cent. (Credit: University of Warwick)

Economists have shed light on the vexed question of whether economic development can buy happiness — and it seems that life satisfaction actually dips among people living in the wealthiest countries.

Politicians are intensely interested in the link between national wealth and levels of happiness among the population, but it is a subject which is still wide open to debate among economists.

A new analysis led by economists Eugenio Proto in the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick and Aldo Rustichini, from University of MInnesota finds that as expected, for…

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What is the future of conservation


Excellent thoughts and commentary by Dave Abson from Ideas4Sustainability.

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

In a forthcoming article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution entitled “What is the future of conservation?” Daniel Doak and colleagues rail against what they term ‘new conservation science (NCS)’. Doak et al., never quite get round to providing a clear definition of what NCS is. Rather they describe NCS through a series of the problems with ‘traditional’ conservation science they claim are made (somewhat tenuously in my opinion) that NCS makes and the NCS remedies to these posited problems with traditional conservation approaches.  In short they claim that NCS claim (see, it is already getting tortuously tenuous) that traditional conservation:

a) Ignores the well-being of the poor and therefore causes suffering.

b) Is based on the myth of pristine nature.

c) Wrongly assume that nature is inherently fragile.

d) And finally, that NCS claims that “conservation for biodiversity’s sake” is failing.

Doak et al., then suggest that…

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Teaching Economics? Start with Key Contested Ideas

Originally posted on Unlearning Economics:

How economics is taught has been the subject of a lot of debate recently. Although there have been a lot of good points made, in my opinion Andrew Lainton‘s recent blog post hits the nail on the head: we need to begin economics education with a discussion of key, contested ideas.

Starting with contested ideas has a few major benefits. First, it immediately shows students what economics is: a subject where there is a lot of disagreement, and where key ideas are often not well understood, even by the best. Second, it allows students to grapple with the kinds of critical questions that, in my experience, people generally have in mind when they think of ‘economics’: where do growth, profits come from? How do things ‘work’? Third, it allows us to intertwine the teaching of these concepts with economic history and the history of thought.

Lainton’s key contested idea is…

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10 Things I Didn’t Know About Phosphorus Fertilizer


Some great analysis on P/ee for thought… err, Food Policy for Thought!

Originally posted on Food (Policy) For Thought:

Since my post about nitrogen fertilizer is still one of the most successful ones yet (who’d thought?), and I’ve been working non-stop this week on a paper to analyze phosphorus and its resource, phosphate rock, for a paper in my class Economic Growth and Sustainable Development, I thought I’d give you some insights into what I learned. Sit tight, since there are definitely a couple of things you’ll be surprised by…

1. First off, you’ll remember that there are three macronutrients that are needed for plant growth – nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). A German chemist called Justus von Liebig actually discovered this in the 1840s; before, people thought that plants got their energy somewhat mysteriously from other plants and animals decomposing in the soil which would transfer their life onward – but then came organic chemistry and people rejoiced at a quick and easy formula to make…

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