Diversity Prospecting for an Open Source Plant Breeding Framework

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2013: $9,945.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin- Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Irwin Goldman
University of Wisconsin- Madison

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: carrots


  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, transitioning to organic
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems


    We examined what freedom to operate (FTO) looks like in a single crop: carrot, beginning with a set of 142 commercially available carrot cultivars. Two datasets were collected: (1) phenotypic diversity on root and shoot characteristics of each cultivar and (2) an accounting of any form of legal protection or restrictions associated with each cultivar that may impact future breeding efforts. We found that there were significant differences for many of the phenotypic traits measured between the group of cultivars that had FTO compared to those cultivars that did not have FTO.


    Several recent reports have noted the importance of maintaining and utilizing plant genetic resources and the dangers of diversity loss in crop plants (Lauer et al. 2012, Fedoroff et al. 2010, Esquinas-Alcazar 2005, Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture 2010). Access to crop germplasm resources is arguably one of our most important public resources. The diversity within crop species is what we as humans depend on to ensure food security and resiliency of our agricultural system. With the increasing uncertainty of weather events due to a changing climate, access to the insurance that genetic diversity provides will be essential to developing new cultivars that are resilient under adverse conditions (Tester and Langridge 2010). However, our germplasm resources have seen a number of important threats in recent decades. Over the past century, crop plant germplasm resources have increasingly moved from a freely available public resource into proprietary structures managed by the private sector. Plant breeding, in its most fundamental form, relies on human directed selection in genetically variable populations of plants. In order to be able to utilize the power of selection, genetic diversity within the population under selection is essential. People have been practicing plant breeding since the domestication of crop plants and selection for increased yields, improved flavor and adaptation to new disease and environmental conditions has resulted in all of the plant-based foods and fibers that we utilize today. With the increase in proprietary protection for crop plants, the exchange of germplasm that will be necessary to develop new cultivars that can feed a growing population, perform under low-input conditions, and are resilient in the face of a changing climate is threatened.

    Concerns over difficulties accessing genetic resources have led to the creation of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) by a working group of plant breeders, farmers, non-profit agencies, seed advocates, and policy makers. OSSI seeks to maintain fair and open access to plant genetic resources worldwide and foster innovative plant breeding to develop productive and resilient cultivars. Critical to supporting these goals is the development of an open source mechanism for crop plant germplasm to be able to move between and among farmers, plant breeders, seed companies and gardeners in a viral fashion without restrictions on further breeding.  

    One of the challenges to the development of a useful open source framework will be determining the genetic diversity of germplasm currently in use and what proportion of that diversity is freely available to use in breeding. Using carrot as a model crop, this project seeks to describe the genotypic and phenotypic diversity currently distributed in the United States and to determine what proportion of that diversity is legally protected and what is freely available for future breeding. With farmer input, we will then begin to develop populations that represent this available diversity. We will distribute these cultivars to interested parties under one of the OSSI open source licenses. This project will insure that diversity remains available for everyone to access, as it is this diversity upon which the future of a successful, sustainable agriculture depends.

    Historically, farmers used their own seeds saved from previous harvests to produce grain the following year. Farmers decided what seeds to plant, whom to share seeds with, and facilitated the sharing and dissemination of seed over a wide area (Salazar et. al. 2007). Access to a wide pool of germplasm has facilitated the development of new and resilient cultivars and helped maintain genetic diversity within agriculture systems (Kloppenburg 2010). However, the 20th century has seen a dramatic transition in the distribution of plant germplasm development and release from a freely available resource, primarily in the public sector, into proprietary structures managed largely by the private sector (Aoki 2009). Plant breeding as a scientific discipline began in the early 20th century with land grant institutions established plant breeding programs to develop new crop cultivars for farmers in different parts of the country. While public plant breeding departments still exist, the role of these programs has largely shifted from production of new cultivars toward basic genetic research. The invention of hybrid corn in the 1930’s and the application of biotechnology to crop plants in the 1970’s led to increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights utilization and legislation. The accrual of patent protections for biological organisms has resulted in significant changes in the seed industry. Intellectual property legislation passed in the United States over the past eighty years has increased proprietary rights to genetic material, leading to consolidation of the global seed industry and significantly decreasing breeders’ and farmers’ sharing of and access to germplasm (Kloppenburg 2004). These proprietary restrictions threaten the exchange of germplasm necessary to the development of new cultivars capable of feeding a growing world population and that are resilient to more extreme environmental stressors caused by climate change. Several people have called for the development of an open source system for plant germplasm, similar to that developed by software programmers that would provide an alternative path for germplasm release to maintain unrestricted access to seed for farmers as well as for breeding and research enterprises. (Aoki 2009, Bragdon 2005, Jefferson 2006, Kloppenburg 2010, Srinivas 2006). This project will examine questions of available diversity and will determine key issues in the development of an open source framework for plant germplasm.

    Literature Cited:

    Aoki, K. 2009. “Free seeds, not free beer”: Participatory plant breeding, open source seeds, and acknowledging user innovation in agriculture. Fordham Law Review, 77(5): 2275-2310.

    Bragdon, S. 2005. Open source mechanisms: The example of BIOS. Generation Challenge Programme Conference 2005.

    Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. 2010. The second report on the state of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. FAO, Rome.

    Esquinas-Alcazar, J. 2005. Protecting crop genetic diversity for food security: political, ethical and technical challenges. Nature Reviews Genetics 6 (946-953).

    Fedoroff, N.V. et al. 2010. Radically rethinking agriculture for the 21st century. Science 327 (833-834).

    Jefferson, R. 2006. Science as social enterprise: The CAMBIA BiOS initaitve. Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, 1:11-42.

    Kloppenburg, J., 2004. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492–2000. Reissued with a new preface and an additional final chapter, ‘Still the Seed’. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Kloppenburg, J. 2010. Impeding dispossession, enabling repossession: biological open source and the recovery of seed sovereignty. Journal of Agrarian Change 10(3): 367-388.

    Lauer, J.G. et al. 2012. The scientific grand challenges of the 21st century for the Crop Science Society of America. Crop Science, 52 (1003-1010).

    Salazar, R., N. Louwaars and B. Visser, 2007. ‘Protecting Farmers’ New Varieties: New Approaches to Rights on Collective Innovations in Plant Genetic Resources’. World Development, 35 (9): 1515-28.

    Srinivas, K.R. 2006. Intellectual property rights and bio commons: Open source and beyond. International Social Science Journal, 58: 319 -334

    Tester, M. and P. Langridge. 2010. Breeding technologies to increase crop production in a changing world. Science, 327 (818-822).

    Project objectives:

    There are several distinct outputs that will result from this project including several peer reviewed journal articles, diverse populations of carrot, and data on the phenotypic and genotypic diversity present in commercially available carrot cultivars. We plan to publish on the level of diversity present in commercially available carrot cultivars in the US, specifically focusing on what proportion of that diversity is available to use and what is protected through intellectual property rights. After analyzing this diversity and determining what is available, we will develop several populations based on market class of carrot. These populations will be released under the OSSI Pledge, ensuring that the diversity represented by these populations will remain available for future use. In addition, we will develop protocols for analyzing diversity and intellectual property rights protection that could be applied to other crops. We hope that these outputs will inform the development of OSSI as an organization and increase access to and sharing of plant genetic resources.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.