Seed World

Australian Scientist Requests Open Access to Plant Genomes

A plant scientist from Australian National University (ANU) has called upon the United Nations to guarantee free and open access to plant DNA sequences, enabling scientists to continue improving crops for food production.
Norman Warthmann, a plant geneticist at the ANU Research School of Biology, has lodged a submission with the UN, which is considering issues to include in its 2015 Global Sustainable Development Report.
Food security depends on an acceleration in plant breeding, which could be threatened by private companies restricting access to genomic information, Warthmann says. “This information is a public good — it would be a tragedy and a big setback if commercial interests override the freedom of the data. We must ensure this data is available without restrictions.”
Warthmann and Claudio Chiarolla, from the Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris, have submitted a policy brief to the UN urging the ambiguous legal situation to be clarified. The crowd-sourced science brief is open for public comment.
They propose that a license similar to the copyleft license used in free, open-source software development be used for DNA data.
“Copyleft has revolutionized software development — I am imagining a similar global collaborative environment for breeding our crops to feed a growing population in a changing climate,” Warthmann says. “Companies should still be able to make good seeds and sell them, just not limit the information that is attached to them. This type of license does not hamper companies — commercial software companies regularly use open source code in their products.”
Warthmann does not see his suggestion as the final answer, but he invites others to make comments on the UN process.
“This is a starting point for discussions,” he says. “The more people comment on this, the better.”
The science-policy brief is available at