Open source seed banks and protection of seeds

Seed banks, or seed libraries, refer to the collection and categorization of seeds of natural and agriculturally bred plant varieties as well as the collection of related data (e.g. location, botanical classification or genetic lineage).[1] Seed banks are widely spread and established worldwide. Nevertheless, innovative approaches are currently being developed, particularly with a view to protecting traditional crops, exchanging them and making them accessible. On the one hand, these are open source seed banks, which provide seeds with a free license and thus make them a protected common good. On the other hand, there are projects and initiatives emerging which (for example by revitalizing old varieties) seek to secure seeds of plants that harmonize well with changing climatic conditions or counteract climate change.


Aim and innovation

Originally, seed banks were used to secure seeds from the last harvest for the next sowing. Today, a variety of objectives are being pursued. Avoiding the loss of genetic material and safeguarding biodiversity are frequent reasons for establishing seed banks. The 'Svalbard Global Seed Vault' in Norway, which opened in 2008, is the world's largest storage facility. Its aim is to protect crop seeds from natural and man-made disasters and thus act as a 'backup' for all mankind[2].

Due to rapid changes in our climate, seed banks are now also being discussed from a food security perspective. In this sense, the revitalization of old varieties stored in seed banks can be used to adapt to the changing climate and its consequences by producing particularly robust crops[3].

The development of open source seed banks also aims to improve food sovereignty, to promote the participatory exchange of varieties and to protect seeds from privatization by granting an open source license. One example of this kind is the 'OpenSourceSeeds' initiative, which is only a few years old and based in Germany. The use of open source licenses intends to protect seeds as a common good for free use. The website 'Community seed banks' was also launched as a digital platform for connecting seed savers´, gardeners´ and farmers’ networks throughout Europe with funds from the EU's Horizon 2020 programme. Projects can be registered online on a map. Particularly seed banks from Spain and Southern France are well represented.[4]



La Troje[10], Reclaim the Seeds[11], OpenSourceSeeds[12], Plants For A Future[13], Saatgut tauschen[14]



intermediate consumption, trade


associations, federations, food producers, (hobby) gardeners 

State of development

In recent years, two developments in particular have led to these further developments of classic seed banks: patenting, privatization and monopolization in the seed sector and climate change.

As a reaction to the EU's seed legislation proposals, an (information) exchange platform was organized for the first time in the Netherlands in 2010[7]. The aims of this regular event are to safeguard biodiversity, to oppose seed patents and to promote climate-neutral agriculture. Seed exchanges take place in various European cities. In 2016, a website[8] was launched in Germany that uses exclusively digital means for the exchange mediation.

Another novel development is Plants for a future, an online information database on edible and useful plants, which was initiated in the UK[9]. The database contains only information, no genetic material. Its focus is on free access to knowledge. Carbon farming (agricultural methods that aim to absorb more atmospheric carbon in the soil, roots, woods and leaves of plants) composes a separate section of the database.

Sustainability potential


  • biodiversity
  • soil (indirect)
  • water (indirect)
  • climate (indirect)


  • poverty reduction (indirect)
  • strengthening of regional economic cycles (indirect)
  • increase of food security
  • creation of transparency along the value chain


  • health: access to healthy food (indirect)
  • participation

Risks / disadvantages

Private seed banks can pose a risk to health, whenever uncontrolled seeds are offered. Not all breeds are automatically suitable for consumption. Occasionally, hobby gardeners even die[15].


[1] Nabors, M. W., & Scheibe, R. (2007): Botanik. Pearson Deutschland GmbH. p. 647.

[2] Svalbard Global Seed Vault (n.d.): Svalbard Global Seed Vault. https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/ (20.02.2020)

[3] Dempewolf, H. et al. (2014): Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: A Global Initiative to Collect, Conserve, and Use Crop Wild Relatives. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 38(4), pp. 369–377. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2013.870629 (20.02.2020)

[4] The CSB Map / Community Seed Banks. (n.d.): The CSB Map.  https://www.communityseedbanks.org/the-csb-map/(20.02.2020)

[5] Vernooy, R. et al. (2015): Community Seed Banks: Origins, Evolution and Prospects. Routledge.

[6] Lewis, V. & Mulvany, P.M. (1997): A Typology of community seed banks. Natural resources institute. University of Greenwich, Kent, UK.

[7] Reclaim the Seeds (n.d.): Info about patents, seed laws, monopoly’s, GMOs, alternatives and food sovereignty.  https://www.reclaimtheseeds.nl/rts-achtergrond-engels.htm (20.02.2020)

[8] Saatgut tauschen (2016 - 2019): Saatgut tauschen - Tauschbörse für samenfestes Biosaatgut.  https://saatgut-tauschen.de/ (20.02.2020)

[9] Plants for a future (1995-2019): About us. https://pfaf.org/user/AboutUs.aspx (20.02.2020)