While enterprises everywhere rush to gain control over their data, a far more momentous data battle is brewing on the farm. Agriculture giant Monsanto declares it can increase world-wide crop production by about $20 billion a year by using data to optimize seed planting. Meanwhile, farmers worry that they may be ceding control of their crops. In a very real sense, agriculture is reliving the early days of open-source software.

And, right on cue, there’s an open-source seed initiative designed to give farmer “developers” perpetual control of their seeds (“code”). Will it work?

Who owns the data?

Farmers have long owned their crop and equipment data. While estimates vary as to how much value they individually collect from such data, no one has questioned that it is, in fact, their data. Until now.

Monsanto and other agriculture giants have been steadily improving crop yields for decades with genetically modified seeds, among other innovations like data services derived from farm equipment machinery. Such seeds and services are proprietary, and Monsanto has launched lawsuits against nearly 150 US farmers since 1997 for replanting seeds that contain the company’s proprietary characteristics, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

The other problem for farmers is that as much as they may want the data to help their own yields, they worry about aiding their competitors. As John McGuire, an agriculture technology consultant who runs Simplified Technology Services and developed geospatial tools for Monsanto in the late-1990s, tells Salon.com, “If you inadvertently teach Monsanto what it is that makes you a better farmer than your neighbor, it can sell that information to your neighbor.”

It’s a new spin on an old problem: corporate control and proprietization of otherwise open data. Many decades ago, John Steinbeck captured the essence of the problem in The Grapes of Wrath, suggesting that revolution might be the answer:

“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.”

Or perhaps they will turn to open source. Rather than fight the possibility of corporate interests stifling the farmer’s ability to control his or her own land, some are turning to open source.

Free the seed!

The problem with farmers’ efforts to combat the proprietization of agricultural data is that there’s simply too much to be gained from big data. But, as happened in software, there is a way to both embrace big data while still hedging against the hegemony of large commercial interests: open source.

Recently, the Open Source Seed Initiative was born, promising to “open source” the “code” behind 29 varieties of broccoli, kale, and other seeds. The purpose, as the free seed pledge makes clear, is 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.” What does this mean? The pledge goes on: “By attaching a free seed pledge to packets of open source seed, these genetic resources cannot be patented or otherwise legally protected, making them essentially available in perpetuity in a protected commons.”

Such seeds, in other words, won’t become proprietary. Farmers will be able to use these seeds forever free of any corporate interest.

While this doesn’t ensure that crop data will be kept open, organizations like the Farm Bureau are considering establishing a trade group to collect and disseminate crop data. Under such a scenario, farmers could determine how to share their individual farming equipment and crop data. Presumably, the more they share, the more information they’d get from others, similar to how open source works.

Feeding the planet with open source

As in open source, I suspect we’ll come to welcome both corporate and community interest. Whatever the farmers’ worries about behemoth agriculture companies using data against them, the reality is that a balance between individual farmers and corporations likely helps all. The trick is to get that balance right.

In software, this has meant a balance between different licensing strategies, with the more restrictive GNU General Public License (GPL) balancing out the more permissive Apache Software License. Both are needed.

As the agricultural community figures out this balance, we’ll see farming get the same benefit that enterprise software has seen. The Open Source Seed Initiative is a great step in the right direction, as Glyn Moody captures:

“The creation of free software 30 years ago has had a profound effect on computing, and helped fuel the rise of the Internet, with which it has a symbiotic relationship. Food and who controls it are arguably even more important issues for the world, and it would be nice to think that, despite its modest beginnings, the Open Source Seed Initiative might one day have as great an impact as its digital forebear.”

He’s right. It’s not the complete answer, but it’s a great start to an answer that has dramatically reshaped software, giving us big data, the Internet of Things, and a host of companies that depend upon open source, like Google.

What are your thoughts about open sourcing agriculture? Let us know in the discussion thread below.