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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

We begin this hour with food - specifically, vegetables. A lot of money and time goes into making better crops to feed more people. That comes down to the science of developing new types of seeds. Because of all the resources that go into them, varieties of seeds are often controlled by patents and licenses. But there's a group of scientists and food activists who want those seeds shared freely. And today, they're launching a new campaign to change how seeds are governed.

NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Irwin Goldman, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is one of the people behind this campaign.

IRWIN GOLDMAN: I breed carrots and onions and table beets, and I teach courses in plant breeding.

CHARLES: He pollinates the plant and selects the most attractive offspring, creating new varieties for gardeners and big farmers alike. When he started doing this more than 20 years ago, he says, there was an explicit code of ethics among plant breeders: You didn't own your work. You shared it.

GOLDMAN: Other breeders, if they asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed. They would do that same for us. That was a really wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us.

CHARLES: These days, seeds are intellectual property. Some are patented, as inventions. You need permission from the patentholder to use them, and you're not supposed to harvest seeds for replanting the next year.

Even university breeders do this. When Irwin Goldman creates a great new variety, the university licenses it to seed companies. The money this brings in helps pay for Goldman's work, but he still does not like this system of restricting access to plant genes, what he calls germplasm.

GOLDMAN: If we don't share germplasm and freely exchange it, then we will probably limit our abilities to improve the crop.

CHARLES: Sociologist Jack Kloppenberg, also at the University of Wisconsin, has been campaigning against seed patents for 30 years for slightly different reasons. He says they've led to the rise of big seed companies that are promoting ever-bigger farms.

JACK KLOPPENBERG: The problem is concentration and the narrow set of uses to which the technologies and the breeding are being put.

CHARLES: So, this morning, Goldman and Kloppenberg and some other seed patent critics will gather on the front lawn of the university's Microbial Sciences Building and they'll launch what they call the Open Source Seed Initiative. It's inspired by the example of Open Source software. That's software that anyone can use, but you're legally prohibited from turning it into a proprietary product.

They're unveiling 29 new varieties of carrots, broccoli, kale, quinoa and 10 other crops. And they're saying these new varieties are unrestricted - no patents or licenses. In fact, if you use them to breed new lines of vegetables, you have to make those new varieties freely available, too.

KLOPPENBERG: So what we're talking about is freeing up material again.

CHARLES: Kloppenberg says one important goal for this initiative is simply to get people thinking and talking about how seeds are controlled.

KLOPPENBERG: It's to open people's minds, and it's a kind of biological meme, you might say: free seed, seed that can be used by anyone.

CHARLES: Anyone can use them, but most people probably won't be able to find them.

The companies that dominate the seed business probably will keep selling their own proprietary varieties or hybrids. There's more money to be made with those seeds. Most commercial vegetable seeds are, in fact, hybrids, which come with a kind of built-in security lock. If you replant seed from a hybrid, you won't get exactly the same kind of plant.

John Shoenecker, director of intellectual property for the seed company HM Clause, in Davis, California, says his company may avoid using open source seed to breed new varieties.

JOHN SHOENECKER: Because then we would start, you know, investing in it and have limited potential to, you know, recoup the investment.

CHARLES: Because the offspring of open source seeds have to be shared, too.

Irwin Goldman says he expects many plant breeders at universities to join the open source effort. And two small seed companies that specialize in selling to organic farmers are adding some open source seeds to their catalogs this year.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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