A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They're releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new "open source pledge" that's intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners, and plant breeders to share those seeds freely.
It's inspired by the example of open source software, which is freely available for anyone to use, but cannot legally be converted into anyone's proprietary product.
At an event on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, backers of the new Open Source Seed Initiative will pass out 29 new varieties of fourteen different crops, including carrots, kale, broccoli and quinoa. Anyone receiving the seeds must pledge not to restrict their use by means of patents, licenses or any other kind of intellectual property. In fact, any future plant that's derived from these open source seeds also has to remain freely available as well.
Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, helped organize the campaign. It's an attempt to restore the practice of open sharing that was the rule among plant breeders when he entered the profession more than 20 years ago.
"If other breeders asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed, and they would do the same for us," he says. "That was a wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us."
These days, seeds are intellectual property. Some are patented as inventions. You need permission from the patent holder to use them, and you're not supposed to harvest seeds for replanting the next year.
Even university breeders operate under these rules. When Goldwin creates a new variety of onions, carrots or table beets, a technology-transfer arm of the university licenses it to seed companies.
This brings in money that helps pay for Goldman's work, but he still doesn't like the consequences of restricting access to plant genes — what he calls germplasm. "If we don't share germplasm and freely exchange it, then we will limit our ability to improve the crop," he says.
Sociologist Jack Kloppenburg, also at the University of Wisconsin, has been campaigning against seed patents for 30 years. His reasons go beyond
He says turning seeds into private property has contributed to the rise of big seed companies that in turn promote ever-bigger, more specialized farms. "The problem is concentration, and the narrow set of uses to which the technology and the breeding are being put," he says.
Kloppenburg says that one important goal for this initiative is simply to get people thinking and talking about how seeds are controlled. "It's to open people's minds," he says. "It's kind of a biological meme, you might say: Free seed! Seed that can be used by anyone!"
The practical impact of the Open Source Seed Initiative on farmers and gardeners, however, may be limited. Even though anyone can use such seed, most people probably won't be able to find it.
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 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. (For this reason, some seed companies don't bother getting patents on their hybrids.)
John Shoenecker, director of intellectual property for the seed company HM Clause and the incoming president of the American Seed Trade Association, says his company may avoid using open source seed to breed new commercial varieties "because then we'd ... have limited potential to recoup the investment." That's because the offspring of open source seeds would have to be shared as well, and any other seed company could immediate sell the same variety.
The initiative is probably more significant for plant breeders, especially at universities. Goldman says that he expects many plant breeders at universities to join the open source effort.
Meanwhile, two small seed companies that specialize in selling to organic farmers — High Mowing Organic Seeds in Hardwick, Vt., and Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore., are adding some open source seeds to their catalogs this year.
Health officials are worried.
After being free of polio for nearly 15 years, Equatorial Guinea has reported two cases of the disease.
The children paralyzed are in two distant parts of the country. So the virus may have spread widely across the small nation.
The outbreak is dangerous, in part, because Equatorial Guinea has the worst polio vaccination rate in the world: 39 percent.
Even Somalia, teetering on brink of anarchy, vaccinates 47 percent of its children.
The World Health Organization encourages countries to keep polio vaccination rates above 80 percent. Most nations' rates are above 95 percent.
The Equatorial Guinea outbreak can be traced to neighboring Cameroon, where seven children have been paralyzed by polio since October.
"This is actually an outbreak from
Cameroon that has been ongoing and has spread ," says Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the WHO's polio eradication initiative in Geneva. E fforts to contain the Cameroon outbreak, he says, have fallen flat.
Controlling the disease in Equatorial Guinea will also be challenging. One of the current polio cases is in the capital, Malabo, located on an island off the country's Atlantic coast. The other is more than 100 miles away on the mainland, adjacent to Cameroon.
The disease could spread even further, to the troubled Central African Republic. The country has been rocked by violent clashes between Christians and Muslims. And hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. Polio thrives in areas with this type of social unrest.
Last week the United Nations approved sending 12,000
peacekeepers to the country to try to stem violence.
Nigeria remains the only country in Africa where there have been new cases of polio reported continuously over the past century. It's also
the primary reservoir of the virus on the continent.
But this year Nigeria appears to be making progress against polio, Rosenbauer says. Only one case has been recorded in 2014 in the country. And the strain of the virus flourishing in Cameroon came by way of Chad rather than Nigeria.
"We are actually concerned that [the] virus is going to spread from Cameroon back into Nigeria, and that you're going to see an outbreak in a polio-free area of Nigeria," Rosenbauer says.
When polio is on the move in Africa, the toll is tragic. In 2010 polio swept through coastal Central Africa, striking
more than 500 people in its capital city, Congo Brazzaviand leaving 190 of them dead.
It's been four years since Spain's construction-fueled economy collapsed, leaving 57 percent of young Spaniards out of work. Noisy protesters occupy Madrid's streets every weekend, demanding jobs and an end to punishing austerity.
But there is another, voiceless victim of the country's economic crash: Spanish horses.
They once carried the conquistadores into battle in the Americas. Spanish purebred horses have long been the choice breed for royal equestrians across Europe and for cowboys in Hollywood films. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Spanish construction barons began buying up horses, a status symbol for newly minted millionaires in Spain's heady boom years.
José Manuel was one of them. Ten years ago he bought a ranch in eastern Spain and started filling it with so-called PREs (pura raza españolas), Spanish purebred horses. NPR found him in the classified ads. He's trying to sell his horses now.
"I've got five horses left. I used to have more," he says. "I was never a horse expert. I just liked riding, and everyone was buying up horses back then. But I don't ride them anymore."
He has put his prized horses up for sale for a fraction of what he paid for them.
"This one horse, around seven years ago, was worth $40,000. But not anymore," Manuel says. "Now he's worth less than half, around $17,000. Prices have fallen so much. These are tough times."
In Spain it can cost about $400 a month to house and feed a horse and pay veterinary bills. Manuel has five. He won't say what he'll do if he's unable to find a buyer.
But last year, more than 70,000 Spanish horses were sent to slaughterhouses, more than twice the annual average before the country's economy tanked. Some of those are exported to France and Italy, where there's less of a stigma against eating horse meat than in Spain. But others erroneously ended up in the food supply, sparking scandal last year.
Concordia Márquez tries to save horses from that fate. She runs a shelter in southern Spain, just outside Malaga, called CYD Santa Maria. It adopts horses that might otherwise end up in the food supply.
"What we call the PREs, the pure Andalusian breed, was for ages an expensive horse and very difficult to find," Márquez says. "But the problem is, the owners — the good breeders — prefer to send those horses to the slaughterhouse than to devalue the price."
Márquez offers them another option: donate the horses to her ranch, where she'll take care of them for free. The facility survives on donations. As she talks, she strokes the nose of a horse named Teide, whom she rescued.
"This is a PRE. I found him abandoned, and we adopted him here. He's got a problem in his hind legs, but he's very beautiful, a stallion," Márquez says.
She found him on a massive ranch filled with animals, abandoned in 2010 by its bankrupt owner.
"When we arrived there that day with the police, we found skeletons everywhere — horses, dogs, cats, ponies. It was amazing," she says. "He survived with another 10 horses, all really skinny. But we couldn't save 50 or 60 other horses who died there."
Experts say that while tens of thousands of Spanish horses are sent to the slaughter, untold thousands more may be shot by their owners, or freed and left to starve. There are no records for horses who perish outside slaughterhouses or veterinary clinics.
For The Love — Or Not — Of Horses
Driving across southern Spain, you can see horses grazing lazily next to the road. It's unclear who owns them.
"If you pay attention, you're going to see that they are completely alone," says Virginia Solera García, Márquez's sister. "They don't have water, and they don't have shelter if it rains or it's really sunny. They appear in the middle of the roads here in Andalusia, all the time."
Solera also works at CYD Santa Maria, helping to rescue those horses from the roadside. She says the economic crash has exposed a dark side to a longtime Spanish tradition.
"It's true that here in Spain, there is long history of loving horses. But now, because of my experience, I realize it's not really about loving horses," she says. "Some people want to have a horse because it's something luxurious, that you can show to your friends and say, 'Yay, I have horses because I'm rich, and I'm an important person.' "
These days, the number of Spaniards who can still say that has dwindled. And many of their horses are now here, in this stable, being cared for by these two sisters.
Married couples in America co-own 3.7 million small businesses, according to the Census Bureau, and the arrangement can be fruitful when both marriage and business are going well. But what happens when it doesn't? Most of the time, when the love dies, the business relationship ends, too.
But that's not always the case.
Take Rhonda Sanderson and her ex-husband. They divorced the way many do, fighting over money and various other things. But then a few years later, after she suffered a bad injury, Sanderson found herself inviting him back into her life — as a business partner at her Chicago public relations firm.
"We actually knew that we were not suited to each other at all in any other way, but the fact is that he has this brilliant marketing mind, and all we ever talked about on dates were business ideas," Sanderson says.
While their marriage did not succeed, their business certainly did. Over the years, they raised their child and their business together. Her ex is in her will. And, according to Sanderson, their relationship has never been better.
"We don't get along very well in certain ways, but we still love each other as people, there's no question," she says.
Making It Work
Kit Johnson of Capella University has studied couples who've stayed in business after a divorce. "It's sort of been a prevailing belief that divorce is a real business killer," she says.
Johnson says that is true in the vast majority of casesbut some "copreneurs," as they're sometimes known, are able to make sharp distinctions between their personal and their professional lives. Johnson and a co-researcher followed nine couples whose business relationship remained intact even under some grim emotional circumstances.
"One of the reasons for ending the marriage was infidelity, which for many people is ... a deal breaker in a relationship, but they had this ability to compartmentalize," Johnson says.
She says one kind of trust can be broken without necessarily affecting trust about money, clients or skills. And in some instances, where ex-spouses rely on the business for income, there may be no good alternative.
"What we found was that, yes, the business can survive. As a matter of fact, it can even thrive," Johnson says.
That is, of course, the exception, not the rule. In many cases, a divorce can lead to a forced sale of the business. And sometimes, when a family business is involved, the drama gets multiplied.
Kathy Marshack is a psychologist in Portland, Ore. who has studied and counseled couples and families who have struggled to keep businesses going through some big rifts. One family, she says, got tangled in webs of relationships gone bad.
"And they got themselves into all kinds of trouble by allowing girlfriends, boyfriends of their kids to come and work in the business. They had people embezzling. And it was a nightmare because how do you confront an embezzler who's your daughter-in-law and the mother of your grandson?" she says.
Three of the family members divorced, but the business has survived. Marshack says it's easy to be blind about love or business, but it's also unwise. "We just believe that if we love somebody that should be the tie that binds us together in loyalty forever. But we live here on earth and all kinds of things happen here," she says.
Jeff Landers, founder of a financial advice firm for women, says often his clients want to retain their business in spite of their ex-spouse without realizing there might be other emotional and financial hurdles to deal with down the line.
"If there's going to be, down the road, a girlfriend or a new wife, how awkward and difficult would that be, especially if the new spouse doesn't want the old spouse around?" Landers says.
This is one thing that Rhonda Sanderson also has experience with.
"He married two other people after me, and they're gone," she says. "Even though they knew it was business, I think his admiration for me would come out in the relationship a lot. I remember one of the wives saying, 'Well, why don't you goto Rhonda? You're always saying that 'she can do this, she can do that, so why don't you ask her for it?' "
Sanderson says she and her ex-husband still fight. But she says the difference is, when you aren't married, it's much easier to let differences go.
The Sichuan peppercorn is known to give some Chinese dishes a pleasant tingling feeling.
What's not so pleasant is that pins-and-needles feeling we get when our foot falls asleep — or when patients who suffer from paresthesia experience constant tingling in their limbs.
Diana Bautista, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, wondered: Could these sensations be connected?
Bautista says a lot of what we know comes from studying plants that give us unique sensations — how we experience the heat of a chili pepper, for instance, or the coolness of a mint leaf. So when Bautista decided to investigate what goes on inside nerve cells when we get a tingling, numbing sensation, she turned to the berries of the prickly ash tree — known in Chinese cooking as the Sichuan (also sometimes spelled "Szechwan") peppercorn.
When I visited her lab, Bautista had told me what to expect while tasting the pepper: "You get a wave of different sorts of sensations. First, I experienced a light citrus flavor ... and then you start to feel sort of prickling sensation ... and then when you think that it's ending, it's actually just about to start."
Now, what Bautista wanted to know was: Why do we feel this mouth buzz from eating a bowl of spicy ma po tofu?
Is the Sichuan pepper activating the same nerve cells that respond when your cell phone buzzes or you use an electric toothbrush?
It's a tricky question, because there are 30 different kinds of nerve cells called somatosensory neurons, and they each respond to different tactile sensations.
Bautista recently made an important connection: When she exposed a bunch of mouse neurons for touch, itch and pain to shanshool, the ingredient that gives the pepper its buzz, only the big ones responsible for touch and vibration reacted.
"So we were really excited, and it is the first compound that specifically targets the touch pathway," she says.
But that's not all. Not only does the Sichuan pepper chemically mimic touch, "it turns out [it] activates the same neurons that are affected in patients who suffer from tingling and numbing paresthesia," she says.
Her discovery may help lead to finding ways of switching off the buzzing feeling for patients who live with this tingling sensation all the time.
Researchers are using Bautista's finding in other ways, too. Nobuhiro Hagura, a neuroscientist at University College London, wanted to know whether everyone experiences those peppery vibrations in the same way — in the way we all hear the same note in music. He wrote a paper called "Food Vibrations" for the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Academy.
"The bottom line is very simple: We wanted to know what is the frequency experienced by Sichuan pepper, and is it consistent across participants?" he says.
Nobuhiro Hagura designed a neat experiment. Twenty-eight willing volunteers came to his lab, and instead of giving them some spicy Sichuan takeout, they each got enough sanshool extract to make their mouths tingle.
Each of them also got a small box that could vibrate a bit like a cell phone.
You can sort of imagine the scene.
The task for the tingling volunteers was to try and match the peppery vibrations in their mouths to the vibrations they could feel in their fingertips as the researchers dialed the frequency of the box up or down.
"They are closing their eyes and trying to judge higher or lower, so it's kind of a bizarre situation," says Nobuhiro.
Until the Sichuan buzz and the mechanical buzz converged on the same frequency, which turns out to be 50 hertz.
Scientists are still looking for other plants that could help unlock the secrets of our sensory nerves. And that ingredient just might be hiding in your pantry.