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How do consumers perceive open‐source seeds licenses? Exploring a new type of credence attribute


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Critical consumerism is the conscious choice of purchasing or avoiding products for ethical or environmental reasons. As an increasing share of consumers attempts to purchase sustainably produced food, credence attributes, which are product qualities that are not easily observable or verifiable during purchase or consumption, gain importance. Variety ownership has so far not played any role in food consumption choices but is a new type of credence attribute that may gain relevance through the recent introduction of open‐source seeds licenses. Such licenses aim to safeguard agrobiodiversity, ensure long‐term access to plant genetic resources and counter current privatization trends in the seed industry. The labeling of open‐source produce could help to upscale the concept and enable consumers to support the safeguarding of biodiversity through their consumption choices. However, as the first open‐source varieties become available for purchase, consumers’ perspectives on open‐source seeds licenses remain unclear. In this paper, we hence examine German consumers’ perceptions of open‐source seeds licenses. The analysis of 228 thinking‐aloud protocols, based on qualitative data collected in a conventional and an organic supermarket in Berlin, Germany, serves as an empirical basis. We find that most consumers have a highly positive evaluation of open‐source seeds licenses, regardless of whether they fully understand the concept or not. The license is widely perceived to provide a countermodel to current industrial seed‐ and agricultural production. Specifically, it is believed to (1) prevent the privatization of plant genetic resources; (2) contribute to the conservation and enhancement of agrobiodiversity; (3) support (small‐scale) farmers and (4) prevent market concentration. To what extent these perceptions coincide with personal preferences for taste, health, safety, and quality remains to be explored. The concept may specifically cater to certain consumer segments, including highly‐educated, young to middle‐aged, organically‐minded consumers.
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Int J Consum Stud. 2022;46:2220–2238.
Received: 27 April 2021 
Revised: 14 January 2022 
Accepted: 18 Januar y 2022
DOI : 10.1111/ijcs.12780
How do consumers perceive open- source seed licenses?
Exploring a new credence attribute
Lea Kliem1,2 | Hendrik Wolter2
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
© 2022 The Authors. International Journal of Consumer Studies published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
1Institute for Ecological Economy
Research, Berlin, Germany
2Depar tment of Business Administration,
Economics and Law, Carl von Ossietzky
University Oldenburg, Germany
Lea Kliem, Institute for Ecological
Economy Research, Berlin, Germany.
Funding information
This work was supported by the German
Federal Ministry of Education and
Research (BMBF), as part of the ‘Research
for sustainable development ’ (FONA)
program under Grant 01UU1602C and
by the Ministry of Science and Culture of
Lower Saxony under Grant 3250.
Critical consumerism is the conscious choice of purchasing or avoiding products for
ethical or environmental reasons. As an increasing share of consumer attempts to
purchase sustainably produced food, credence attributes, which are product quali-
ties that are not easily observable or verifiable during purchase or consumption, gain
importance. Variety ownership has so far not played any role in food consumption
choices but is a new type of credence attribute that may gain relevance through the
recent introduction of open- source seed licenses. Such licenses aim to safeguard
agrobiodiversity, ensure long- term access to plant genetic resources and counter cur-
rent privatization trends in the seed industry. The labeling of open- source produce
could help to upscale the concept and enable consumers to support the safeguarding
of biodiversity through their consumption choices. However, as the first open- source
varieties become available for purchase, consumers’ perspectives on open- source
seed licenses remain unclear. In this paper, we, hence, examine German consumers’
perceptions of open- source seed licenses. The analysis of 228 thinking- aloud proto-
cols, based on qualitative data collected in a conventional and an organic supermar-
ket in Berlin, Germany, serves as an empirical basis. We find that most consumers
have a highly positive evaluation of open- source seed licenses, regardless of whether
they fully understand the concept or not. The license is widely perceived to provide a
counter- model to current industrial seed- and agricultural production. Specifically, it
is believed to (1) prevent the privatization of plant genetic resources, (2) contribute to
the conservation and enhancement of agrobiodiversity, (3) support (small- scale) farm-
ers and (4) prevent market concentration. To what extent these perceptions coincide
with personal preferences for taste, health, safety and quality remains to be explored.
The concept may specifically cater to certain consumer segments, including highly
educated, young to middle- aged, organically minded consumers.
agrobiodiversity, credence attributes, critical consumerism, food, open source, seeds,
sustainability, sustainable consumption, thinking aloud protocols
In re cent ye ars, an in c reas ing sha re of con sume rs in Weste rn co un-
tries engage in critical consumerism – the deliberate avoidance or
purchase of products for political, ethical or environmental rea-
sons (Yates, 2011). As an act of critical consumerism, consum-
ers can exercise steering power through their buying decisions,
and thereby influence market practices and production patterns
(Copeland & Boulianne, 2022). Critical consumers are hence indi-
viduals that align their purchasing decisions with collective and/
or private ecological, ethical or political values. Their consump-
tion is influenced by complex motivational factors that can lead
to ‘foregoing personal gains in favour of a more abstract, some-
what intangible gain to someone or something else’ (Sachdeva
et al., 2015, p. 60), for example, through the purchase of more ex-
pensive sustainably produced products. Consumers may generally
engage in two forms of action: boycotting unsustainable products
and services by not purchasing them or, on the contrary, ‘buycot-
ting’ sustainable products and services through their deliberate
purchase (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013; Yates, 2011). These actions
can either be carried out individually as lifestyle politics or as con-
tentious politics by participating in collective action, for example,
organized boycotts (Gotlieb & Cheema, 2 017).
In the context of food consumption, sustainability- related
product qualities on whose basis critical consumerism is per-
formed are usually credence attributes. Credence attributes are
pr oduc t qualit ies rela ted to co n sumer conce rns wi th many pa rt s of
the food system: How the foo d was produced, processed and han-
dled, and how this may have affected people, animals and nature
along the way’ (Torjusen et al., 2001, p. 215). In contrast to search
attributes (e.g. price) or experience attributes (e.g. appearance or
taste), credence attributes are not easily observable or verifiable
during purchase or consumption (Darby & Karni, 1973; Fernq vis t &
Ekelung, 2014). Or ganic an d local produ c tio n , fair tr ade and anima l
welfare are among the most prominent sustainability- related cre-
dence attributes, usually made transparent through the use of la-
bels and certification schemes. Plant variety ownership has so far
not played any role in consumption choices but present s it self as a
new credence attribute that may gain relevance due to the recent
introduction of open- source seed licenses. To contextualize our
research on consumer perspectives of open- source seed licenses,
the rationale and development of these licenses are outlined in
the following.
The preservation and further development of a diverse pool
of plant genetic resources is a prerequisite for resilient agricultural
systems (Altieri & Nicholls, 20 17; Altieri et al., 2015). Yet, current
developments in the global seed industry raise social and envi-
ronmental sustainability concerns. Seed production in the Global
North has been subject to increasing privatization and is now a
lucrative economic activity based on intellectual property rights
such as patents and exclusive seed multiplication rights (Clancy &
Moschini, 2017). Varieties are thus increasingly under private own-
ership of a small number of agribusinesses, with currently only three
companies sharing more than 60 percent of the formal global seed
market (Moldenhauer & Hirtz, 2017). This has led to concerns re-
lated to power imbalances and a lack of democratic participation
(Bonny, 2017; Howard, 2015, 2016). Environmental concerns have
also been raised since these companies typically focus on a few,
genetically uniform varieties that depend on complementary agro-
chemicals. This narrow focus is aligned with agricultural systems
based on intensive farming practices that have failed to deliver pos-
itive social and environmental outcomes (Rasmussen et al., 2018). In
this context, specifically, the decline of agrobiodiversity and the ge-
netic erosion of plant varieties have been identified as major threats
to agricultural production and long- term food security (Kahane
et al., 2013; Mijatović et al., 2013).
To counter these trends and ensure access to plant genetic re-
sources for current and future generations, several initiatives have
draw n up on op e n- s o u rce pr i n cip l e s fro m th e sof t wa r e ind u s tr y to de -
velop pledges and licenses that inhibit the privatization of seeds and
varieties. These initiatives aim to (1) promote diverse, locally adapted
varieties, especially for organic agriculture, (2) restore crop seeds as
common goods and (3) combat market concentration in the seed in-
dustry (Kloppenburg, 2014). The first of its kind, the US- based Open
Source Seed Initiative, was formed in 2012 and pioneered a pledge
that is now applied to more than 500 varieties. Similar initiatives have
since formed in Germany, Argentina, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and
India (Moeller & Pedersen, 2018). The contribution of these initia-
tives to facilitate access to crop genetic resources has been analysed
and documented extensively (Kloppenburg, 2010, 2014; Kotschi &
Horneburg, 2018; Louwaars, 2019 ; Luby & Goldman, 2016; Luby
et al., 2016; Montenegro de Wit, 2017; Tsioumani et al., 2016; van
Zwanenberg et al., 2018).
Consumer perspectives on such licenses have so far not been
explored. However, as the first open- source varieties find their
way into supermarkets and farmers markets, questions arise
as to how consumers perceive open- source seed licenses and
which role they might play in the context of critical consumerism.
Examining open- source seed license from a consumer research
perspective is hence valuable for several reasons: (1) Given the
novelty of the concept and the current lack of its widespread
adoption it is unclear how consumers perceive open- source seed
licenses and how they evaluate the concept. Yet, open source as
a potential credence attribute has so far not been explored. (2)
Given the crucial role consumers play in generating demand for
open- source produce, consumer research on open- source seed
licenses can help to determine the usefulness of introducing an
open- source labelling scheme for food products as has recently
been proposed by Kotschi and Doobe (2020). (3) The transferabil-
ity of the open- source concept to the context of food products
has not yet been explored from a consumer perspective. Research
on open- source software, the original field of application, rarely
includes consumer perspectives and foremost focuses on partic-
ipation and community aspects. With a shift in the application of
open- source concepts from the virtual sphere (software) to tan-
gible material objects (food products), consumer perspectives on
open- source concepts gain a new dimension that is particularly
interesting to explore.
In this paper, we, hence, empirically explore consumers’ percep-
tions of open- source seed licenses through a qualitative analysis of
228 thinking aloud protocols (TAPs), which we collected in a conven-
tional and an organic supermarket in Berlin, Germany. Specifically,
we aim to shed light on the following research questions: (1) which
social and ecological sustainability challenges connected to seed
production and breeding are consumers aware of? (2) how do con-
sumers perceive open- source seed licenses and what properties do
they attribute to them? (3) how do consumers evaluate open- source
seed licenses? Based on our findings, we discuss the potential intro-
duction of an open- source label and place the findings in the context
of critical consumerism research. Our research thereby provides a
consumer- centred perspective on the role of open- source seed li-
censes in the socio- ecological transformation of the agricultural
We suspect open- source produce to be of interest to German
consumers for three main reasons. (1) There is a growing interest
among European consumers to preserve diversity in the food sys-
tem, although there is often limited knowledge on how to do so
(Oehen et al., 2020). As biodiversity protection gains in relevance
in public discourses, its focus remains on habitat loss of iconic spe-
cies and the insect die- off (‘Insektensterben’), with plant and crop
diversity often being neglected. However, because declining crop
diversity limits the diversity of available produce and therewith con-
sumer choices, agrobiodiversity loss directly impacts consumers.
The introduction of open- source produce that is labelled as such
would give consumers an option to choose produce that contributes
to the cultivation of crop diversity. (2) The merging of the German
pharmaceutical company Bayer with the US- American agribusiness
Monsanto in 2018 made Bayer the single largest supplier of seeds
and crop protection chemicals worldwide, which drew public atten-
tion to the seed industry. Within 5 days, the German online petition
site compact collected more than 155.000 signatures against the
merger and an additional half a million signatures against Monsanto
products, indicating strong public opposition to large- scale agricul-
tural companies and their practices. Open- source produce may thus
attract the interest of consumers that have a high level of mistrust in
agribusiness. (3) Many German consumers strongly oppose geneti-
cally modified (GM) organisms, especially if they are included in food
products (Bieberstein et al., 2013; Wuepper et al., 2 019). If open-
source produce is believed to be free of genetic modification, con-
sumers rejecting GM varieties might favour open- source produce.
There are thus several reasons to assume that open- source produce
is of inte res t to Ge rma n consu mer s engagi ng in crit ica l consu mer ism .
We first review relevant literature on critical consumerism
(Section 2). Next, we outline the research design and methods for
data collection and analysis (Section 3). We subsequently present
the results of the analysis (Section 4). The discussion section places
the findings in context and reflects on the limitations of the research
approach (Section 5). We conclude by outlining the implications and
identifying future research directions (Section 6).
2.1  | Critical consumerism research
The discourse on critical consumerism is a subsection of the broader
public policy discourse on sustainable consumption, which includes
consumption aspects besides the purchase of products and services,
such as product use or product disposal (Peattie & Collins, 2009).
We follow Gjerris et al. (2016) and consider critical consumerism
to be synonymous with political and ethical consumerism. Critical
consumerism has scientifically been explored from various socio-
political, economic and psychological perspectives (Copeland &
Boulianne, 2022). Food products have thereby been a major subject
of interest and are at the centre of the scientific debate on political
consumerism (e.g. Saraiva et al., 2021; Sebastiani et al., 2013; Zander
& Hamm, 2010).
Although many consumers view themselves as critical consumers,
factors such as high price premiums, habitual behavior, or the priori-
tization of product quality often overshadow sustainability concerns
(e.g. Horne, 2009). A strand of social psychological research, hence,
investigates the barriers and enablers of critical consumerism, high-
lighting that although many consumers support critical consumption
in general, this does often not translate into actual behavior, result-
ing in attitude- behavior gaps (e.g. Carrington et al., 2014; Kollmuss
& Agyeman, 2002; Olson, 2013; Sharma, 2021). Given the complex
fa cto rs in flu enc ing critica l consu mer ism , Sachdeva et al. (2015) point
to the interplay of endogenous factors such as attitudes, beliefs and
perceptions, with exogenous factors such as social norms, peer- to-
peer influences and cultural acceptability, and structural factors such
as product availability, incentive structures and decision nudges.
To engage in critical consumerism, consumers need to understand
and evaluate the politics behind the product, have the resources to
purchase the product, and be motivated to do so (Micheletti, 2003).
Consumer perceptions of and beliefs about credence attributes are
major influencing factors for (critical) purchase decisions, which
can explain up to 75 percent of the variance in decision making
(Moser, 2016). With no previous consumer research on open- source
seed licenses available, we focus on endogenous factors by examining
consumers’ perceptions of open- source seed licenses.
Critical consumerism cannot be understood as a society- wide
phenomenon but is predominantly observed among certain con-
sumer groups. A recent meta- analysis by Copeland and Boulianne
(2022) shows that consumers engaging in critical consumerism tend
to be highly educated, more often women than men, most likely
middle- aged, and have a low level of political trust (also see Stolle
et al., 2005; Yates, 2011). It can, thus, be speculated that these con-
sumer groups are particularly interested in open- source produce.
2.2  | Labeling
Sustainability- related food labels (sometimes referred to as eco-
labels) have played a crucial role in fostering critical consumerism
since they can help consumers to make informed choices and evalu-
ate product qualities using heuristics. They also reduce information
asymmetries between producers and consumers, may foster con-
sumer trust and empower consumers to ‘express their individual
value perception of product characteristics, including the credence
quality attributes’ (Asioli et al., 2020, p. 5). By reducing informa-
tion complexities, they provide guiding narratives or storylines that
stand for certain production processes and cater to specific life-
styles (Asioli et al., 2020; Gall & Wörner, 2012). Research shows that
consumers value the information provided by labels, although they
often have a limited understanding of what different labels stand for
(Annunziata et al., 2 019). Labels with simple and clear messages are
typically favoured over vague and complex labels, whose direct ben-
efit for consumers is not immediately apparent (Delmas et al., 2013).
However, on the example of animal welfare labels, Weinrich and
Spiller (2016) show that German consumers prefer multi- level labels
that combine different production and quality standards over binary
labels that only consider one dimension. Asioli et al. (2020) inter-
pret this as consumers being torn between a desire for simplicity
and clarity on the one hand and a valuation for the availability of
in- depth information on the other hand. Furthermore, the credibility
and authenticity of food labels play a critical role in fostering trust
and are important determinators of the success of food labels (e.g.
Lazaroiu et al., 2 019; Ricci et al., 2018). However, too many compet-
ing labels may lead to confusion and undermine consumers’ trust in
certification systems.
Sustainability labeling in the food sector is increasingly used
as a marketing strategy to support small producers, niche mar-
kets, and new market segments. As such, labels an create fruitful
tensions to change regulatory frameworks, shape public debates,
raise awareness and influence the food- and agricultural sector
more broadly (Clarke, 2008; Boström & Klintman, 2008; Klintman
& Boström, 2012). However, the tendency of neoliberal policies to
place responsibility on consumers to drive market shifts with their
spending power is discussed critically in consumer research, as it en-
ables policymakers to shuffle out of their responsibility (Eckhardt
& Dobscha, 2 019; Giesler & Veresiu, 2 014; Mesiranta et al., 2021).
Consumer responsibility has become a central element of current
sustainability governance that turns state responsibility into indi-
vidual responsibility and thereby implies that we can ‘consume our
way out of environmental problems’ (Soneryd & Uggla, 2015, p. 14).
Underlying such shifts towards ‘conscious capitalism’ is the assump-
tion that consumers are interested in and want to act responsibly
(Eckhardt & Dobscha, 2019). Yet, ignorance or indifference to the
cause at stake, structural and resource constraints, moral dilemmas,
information overloads and feelings of guilt and concern can place
a burden on consumers and/or lead to resistance (Horne, 2009;
Soneryd & Uggla, 2015). Sustainability- related food labels are hence
no silver bullet for addressing unsustainable consumption and
should not be used to merely responsibilize consumers. Yet, they are
a valuable tool that enable critical consumers to exercise their steer-
ing power and can be seen as one of many strategies to shift towards
more sustainable consumption patterns.
2.3  | Sustainability- related credence attributes
Research on sustainability- related credence attributes in Germany
has so far focused on consumers’ perceptions and valuation of or-
ganic and local production (e.g. Ankamah- Yeboah et al., 2 019; Hempel
& Hamm, 2016a , 2016b; Janssen & Hamm, 2012; Otter et al., 2018;
Maesano et al., 2020), fair trade (e.g. Andorfer & Liebe, 2015), animal
welfare (e.g. Yeh & Hartmann, 2021) and carbon- and water foot-
prints (e.g. Emberger- Klein & Menrad, 2018; Feucht & Zander, 2018).
Studies related to seed production and breeding are limited to the
perceived risks and benefits of genetic engineering (e.g. Butkowski
et al., 2017; Christoph et al., 20 08; Delwaide et al., 2015; Emberger-
Klein et al., 2016; Nielsen, 2013; Wuepper et al., 2019).
The public acceptance of GM food in Germany is relatively low
because the technology is regarded as risky for the environment
and the society, morally unacceptable, or of limited use in general
(Emberger- Klein et al., 2016). The perceived risk of genetic engineer-
ing tends to be higher in the context of food products than in the
context of bioenergy (Butkowski et al., 2017; Christoph et al., 2008).
This is mostly driven by a high concern of personal health impacts
from GM food, although environmental consequences are perceived
to pose greater risks than health- , socioeconomic- or ethical conse-
quences (Butkowski et al., 2017).
Open source as a credence attribute has so far not been exam-
ined in the context of food. Consumer research in the context of
information technology, the original field of application for open-
source licenses, has primarily focused on user experiences and the
perception of users and developers (e.g. Gwebu & Wang, 2010;
Lundell et al., 2011; Racero et al., 2020; Raza et al., 2012). Personal
innovativeness in technology, social identification with the open-
source software community and perceived ease of use of the soft-
ware have thereby been found to positively influence perceptions of
open- source software (Gwebu & Wang, 2 011).
3.1  | Thinking aloud protocols
Drawing on a realist research paradigm, we aim to capture individual
realities and perceptions by primarily applying qualitative research
methods in the form of TAPs and a supplementar y standardized
TAPs are an exploratory method to examine consumers’ reac-
tions to a stimulus such as a product, flyer or web site. Participants
are asked to verbalize their thoughts and associations while carrying
out a stimulus- related task, for example, using a product or reading
over a flyer (Ericsson & Simon, 1993; Willis, 2005). Derived from in-
formation processing theory, it is assumed that thinking aloud leads
to concurrent insights into participants’ thought processes (Someren
et al., 1994). As new information enters the working memory it is
consciously processed and, thus, accessible for verbal retrieval.
Nevertheless, environmental and individual factors such as the
cognitive load, the complexity of the stimuli, or the meaning of the
information to the individual influence the extent to which cognitive
processing occurs (Engle, 2018).
TAPs are well suited to examine how consumers perceive and
evaluate products or advertising efforts and have previously been
used at the point of sale (Büttner, 2009; Risius et al., 2017; Zerfas
& Zimmermann, 2004). In this study, we used flyers on the open-
source seed license as stimuli. There are two reasons for this: Firstly,
consumers are likely to be completely unfamiliar with the concept.
Providing basic information is, thus, a necessity to elicit more than
blind guesses. Secondly, the use of different flyer versions allowed us
to test the effect of various rationales for the license. Flyers as stim-
uli for TAPs have previously been used to evaluate consumers’ per-
ceptions of agrobiodiversity (Bantle, 2015; Bantle & Hamm, 2014 a,
2014 b) and endangered livestock breeds (Menger & Hamm, 2021).
The use of flyers opens the possibility that participants merely recite
the information they have read. A careful analysis, distinguishing be-
tween participants’ own thoughts on the one hand and their retelling
of the provided information on the other hand, is necessar y to en-
sure construct validity.
The standardized questionnaire was used to collect socio-
demographic data and capture participants’ attitudes towards a
range of statements concerning their views on seed production and
breeding as well as information on their consumption behavior. The
inclusion of a questionnaire allowed for data triangulation as is com-
mon in studies adopting a realist paradigm (c.f. Sobh & Perry, 2006).
3.2  | Data collection
Data collection took place in the district of Kreuzberg, Berlin, in July
and August 2018. In total, 228 TAPs were collected in a conven-
tional (n = 115) and an organic (n = 113) supermarket. We chose to
collect data in both types of supermarkets because we suspected
that organically minded consumers have a heightened awareness
of social and environmental concerns and are thus a potential tar-
get group for open- source produce (c.f. Ditlevsen et al., 2020; Katt
& Meixner, 2020). For recruitment, all shoppers who entered the
supermarkets were approached and offered to sample the open-
source tomato Sunviva. The purpose of this was to engage with
shoppers and, hence, increase the likelihood of their par ticipation in
the study. Regardless of whether they choose to sample the tomato,
they were requested to participate in a study related to the tomato.
Subsequently, their consent was obtained and they were guided to
a quiet part of the market, where they could choose to stand at a
counter or sit down at a table. Each session consisted of four parts:
(1) a practice round, (2) a thinking aloud task, (3) an explanation task
and (4) a short questionnaire.
1. To allow participants to familiarize themselves with thinking
aloud, they were asked to practice the method with an unre-
lated postcard that depicted a landscape and some text. They
were instructed to follow three principles while looking at the
postcard: (a) to verbalize all thoughts that went through their
head without purposefully structuring them, (b) to mumble or
read aloud when reading text passages and (c) to take their
time and continue until they had nothing left to say (c.f. Bantle
& Hamm, 2014b, p.11; Heine & Schramm, 2007, p. 178). They
were also told that there are no wrong answers. The practice
usually lasted about 2 min.
2. For the thinking aloud task, participants were randomly assigned
one of five flyers (see Section 3.3). Participants were told that
their task is to understand the purpose and the function of the
open- source seed license. The researcher refrained from inter-
vening during the thinking aloud period but reminded participants
to verbalize their thoughts if they fell silent for a longer period. If
participants directed questions at the researcher while thinking
aloud, they were told that all questions would be answered at the
end of the session.
3. For the explanation task, we removed the flyers and instructed
participants to imagine that they are meeting a friend or family
member after their trip to the supermarket to whom they would
like to explain the concept and purpose of the open- source seed
license. They were told that this is not a test of how well they re-
membered the information on the flyer but that they could freely
speak their mind. Having participants explain the license in their
own words allowed for gaining additional insights into whether
participants understood the concept, how they evaluate it and
which aspects they consider most relevant. The verbalizations
from both the thinking aloud task and the explanation task were
audio recorded.
4. Finally, participants filled in a short questionnaire and submit-
ted it anonymously. Besides questions on participants’ socio-
demographics, the questionnaire contained eight statements on
see d production and breeding that par ticipants rated on a 5- point
Likert scale to indicate their (dis)agreement with the statements.
It also included questions on participants’ consumption behavior
and their willingness to pay a premium for open- source produce.
3.3  | Stimuli
Five double- sided flyers served as stimuli for the thinking aloud
task. Each flyer version used a different rationale for introducing the
license. The rationales were as follows: (1) loss of agrobiodiversity,
(2) high levels of market concentration in the global seed sector, (3)
privatization of plant genetic resources through intellectual property
rights, (4) open- source principles as democratic means of production
and (5) the need for cultivars specifically developed for organic ag-
riculture. The rationales correspond with the purpose of the license
as specified by AGRECOL (Kotschi & Horneburg, 2018; Kotschi &
Rapf, 2016). The front page of the flyer consisted of an image and
a thematic slogan such as ‘Agriculture needs crop diversity’ (flyer 1)
or ‘No patents on my veggies’ (flyer 3; see Figure 1). The back of the
flyer had two parts. The first part informed participants about the
purpose of the license based on the respective rationale (110– 115
words). The second part was the same across all flyers and spelled
out the principles of the license (96 words), as specified on the initia-
tive's web site:
‘The license protects seeds and vegetable variet-
ies from being controlled by few. Anyone who buys
seeds with this license must follow three rules:
FIGURE 1 Flyers used as stimuli for the thinking aloud task (in German)
FIGURE 2 Coding scheme
Coding scheme
varieties &
In-situ & ex-situ
& hybrid
Climate Change
Profit interests
Patents &
Reseeding and
other fees
Global South
The Linda
agriculture &
Health & food
Certification &
Taste & quality
of produce
Bayer &
Power of
Open source
Open source
Participation &
Access to seeds
& vareiteis
Evaluation of
the Open Source
Seeds Lisence
Attitude towards
the lisence
Licence term
Open questions
and concerns
Anyone may use open- source seed, grow it, prop-
agate it, and develop it further through breed-
ing. The seed and any further developments of it
may be sold, exchanged, or given away within the
framework of existing laws.
No one is allowed to privatize the seed and its fur-
ther developments; patents and plant- variety pro-
tection are thus excluded.
Each recipient transfers the same rights and obli-
gations to future users of the seed and its further
The flyers were teste d and adapted in two rounds of pre - tests with
15 participants each.
3.4  | Analysis
We transcribed all recordings (average length: 7:30 min) follow-
ing the transcription rules developed by Dresing and Pehl (2017)
and developed a thematic category- based coding scheme (see
Figure 2) following Mayring (2000). The flyer themes and con-
sumers’ evaluation of the license were used as main categories.
Sub- categories were developed inductively, based on 30 ran-
domly chosen transcriptions. The inductive approach necessi-
tated from the lack of previous empirical studies and an absence
of theory development on consumer perceptions of open- source
seed license s. After the analysis of 30 transcripts, a point of satu-
ration was reached and no additional categories could be iden-
tified. Two independent coders coded all transcripts, using the
software MAXQDA. In total, 2880 text segments were assigned
to one or several categories. The inter- coder reliability, which in-
dicates the extent to which the two independent coders agreed
on the coding of the content, was 87.3 percent. This is an excel-
lent value that points to a well- designed coding scheme with dis-
tinct and clear categories. On completion of the coding process,
we revised our original categories, for example, through merging
or renaming sub- categories, to accurately reflect the entirety of
the data. Sub- categories that related to several of the main cat-
egories (e.g., climate change was linked to both agrobiodiversity
and organic agriculture) were assigned to the category that they
were brought in connection with most frequently.
The subsequent qualitative content analysis following Kuckartz
(2016, p. 45) focused on identifying reoccurring themes and state-
ments that provide information on participants’ perceptions of the
open- source seed license. We distinguished between statements re-
ferring to participants’ problem awareness, their solution perception
and their evaluation of the license (see Table 1). Comments on the
flyer design were excluded from the analysis as they provide no rele-
vant information regarding the research questions. We analysed the
data for the thinking aloud task and the explanation task separately.
However, the results are presented conjointly for reasons of space
and coherence.
3.5  | Sample
Table 2 provides an overview of the socio- demographics of
the sample. There were no statistically significant differences
between the two samples, except for education. On average,
participants in the organic supermarket were more educated.
Noticeably, participants across both samples were relatively well
educated (>70 percent held a university degree, compared to 17
percen t of the Germ an po pulat ion age d 15 or above). A s to be ex-
pected, there were significant differences in the reported shop-
ping behavior, with participants from the organic supermarket
stating to be more likely to purchase organic produce (M = 1.48,
SD = 0.51) than participants from the conventional supermarket
(M = 1. 9 7, SD = 0.79; t(217 ) = 4.412, p = .000***). Participants
form the organ ic sup erm ark et (M = 1.82, SD = 0.73) also rep orte d
to pay more attention to labels than participants from the con-
ventional supermarket (M = 2.04, SD = 0.82; t(221) = 2.046,
p = .041*). However, the difference in reported shopping behav-
ior is relatively small.
TAB LE 1  Analysis framework
Problem awareness Solution perception Attitude
Definition Problem awareness refers to the state
or condition of being aware and
having knowledge of a particular
problem or challenge
Solution perception is the process
of recognizing and interpreting
information related to an action or
process of solving a problem
An attitude is ‘a psychological tendency
that is expressed by evaluating a
particular entity with some degree
of favor or disfavor’ (Eagly &
Chaiken, 1993, p. 1)
Research question Which social and ecological
sustainability challenges
connected to seed production and
breeding are consumers aware of?
How do consumers perceive open-
source seed licenses and what
proper ties do they attribute to
the m?
How do consumers evaluate open-
source seed licenses?
Analysis criteria Statements referring to sustainabilit y
concerns connected to seed
production and breeding
Statements referring to the properties
of the open- source seed license
and the (potential) implications of
introducing the license
Statements relating to participants
approval or disapproval of the open-
source seeds license
We first present the results from the questionnaire (Section 4.1).
Subsequently, we present the results of the thinking aloud and the
explanation tasks (Section 4.2).
4.1  | Questionnaire
Table 3 and Figure 3 show the results of the questionnaire. The
first noteworthy result of our study is that there were no statisti-
cally significant differences between the two samples, except for
the item plant varieties should not be the private property of companies
which received higher support among participants from the organic
supermarket (M = 1.31, SD = 0.62) than from the conventional su-
permarket (M = 1.60, SD = 1.14; t(219) = 2.301, p = .021*). More
than 80 percent of participants stated that they understand the
principle of the open- source seed license. An even higher share of
89.9 percent supports the widespread introduction of the license,
with nearly 69.7 percent strongly agreeing with the respective state-
ment. The indicated support towards the open- source seed license
slightly exceeded the support for open- source software, whose use
78.7 percent of participants favoured. Two- thirds of participants re-
ported that they would be willing to pay a price premium for open-
source produce. For 250 grams of tomatoes, which regularly cost
2.49 Euros, participants from the organic supermarket sample would
on average be willing to pay a price premium of 49 Eurocents, which
is slightly higher than the 42 Eurocents that participants from the
conventional supermarket sample would be willing to pay.
4.2  | Thinking aloud and explanation tasks
In line with results from the questionnaire, the TAP revealed no
substantial differences between participants from the two sam-
ples. On average, participants from the organic supermarket were
only slightly more informed about seed production and breeding,
TAB LE 2  Socio- demographic variables, self- reported shopping behavior and length of recording
Organic supermarket
(n = 113)
Conventional supermarket
(n = 115)
(n = 228)
Population in
Female 59.3% 61 .7% 60.5% 51% a
Male 38.0% 36.5% 3 7. 3 % 49%a
Other/no answer 2.7% 1.7% 2.2%
Mean age 45.5 47.7 46.6 44.3a
Secondary school diploma or less 2.7% 11. 3% 7. 0 % 7. 2 % a
High school diploma 9.7% 7.4% 12.3% 19. 5% a
Vocational training 9.7% 9.6% 9.6% 56.3%a
Bachelor's degree 14.0 % 7. 0 % 10.5% 17. 0 % a
Master's degree or higher 62.8% 57.4 % 60.1%
Do not know/no answer 0.8% 0.0% 0.4%
Monthly income (netto, per household)
<1300 21.2% 17. 4 % 19. 3% 15.2%b
1 3 0 0 2 5 9 9 18.6% 2 7. 0 % 22.8% 30.6%b
2 6 0 0 3 5 9 9 11.5% 21.7% 16.7% 22.0%b
3600– 5000€ 18.6% 14.8% 16.7% 1 7. 3 % b
>5000€ 13.2% 7. 8% 10.5% 14.7 %b
Do not know/no answer 16.8% 11.3% 14.0%
Average household size 2.12 2.37 2.25 2.2a
Purchase organic produce at least once per
week [1 = very likely; 4 = ver y unlikely]
1.48 1.97 1.73
Pay attention to labels (e.g. organic, FairTrade,
regional) when purchasing food [1 = very
likely; 4 = very unlikely]
1.82 2.03 1.93
Average length of recording 7:15 min 7:45 min 7:30 min
Sources: aCensus 2011, bStatista Data from 2019.
which often led to more detailed verbal accounts. Because we did
not observe any significant differences in either the frequency
with which participants referred to different topics or their stated
perceptions of the open- source seed license, we present the re-
sults conjointly.
Table 4 shows the frequency of the topics, including sub- codes,
with which participants talked about during the thinking aloud and/
or the explanation tasks. As expected, the topic of the assigned flyer
version influenced what participants spoke about. However, it is
noteworthy that irrespective of their assigned flyer version, all par-
ticipants brought the open- source seed license in connection with
several different topics. Open- source principles in general, privat-
ization, and agrobiodiversity were most frequently addressed, with
at least three- quarters of participants referring to these topics. The
license was least frequently bro ught in conn ection with org anic agri-
culture. Because we did not observe any major differences between
the TAP of different flyer versions other than the frequency at which
topics were addressed, we do not further differentiate the analysis
between the different flyer versions.
4.2.1  |  Problem awareness: Perceived sustainability
challenges related to seed production and breeding
Participants referred to five main sustainability challenges as they
verbalized their thoughts. These concerns were raised regardless of
the flyer version received, although the stimuli influenced the likeli-
hood of participants addressing a particular concern.
Questionnaire item
supermarket Overall
Declining diversity in agriculture is a
problem for our society
1.22 1.25 1. 24
Patents are necessary to ensure progress in
plant breeding
3.98 3.73 3.85
Plant varieties should not be private
property of companies
1.31 1.60 1.46
It is a problem that a few large corporations
dominate the seed market
1.25 1.20 1.22
I favour the use of open- source soft ware 1.42 1.40 1 .41
I understand the principles of the open-
source seed license
1.77 1.80 1.79
I favour the widespread introduction of
open- source seed licenses
1.32 1.37 1.35
I would be willing to pay a price premium
for produce from open- source varieties
1.87 2.10 1.99
For 250 g tomatoes, which regularly cost
2.49€, I would be willing to pay a
maximum of ___ Eurocent more if they
were from an open- source variet y
49 Eurocent 42 Eurocent 45 Eurocent
Note: Averages whereby 1 = strongly agree, 5 = strongly disagree; do not know/ no answer was
TABLE 3 Overview questionnaire
FIGURE 3 Agreement with various
statements in percentages (overall sample)
The most frequently (n = 171) raised concern was the decline
of agrobiodiversity. Especially the loss of old (heirloom/traditional/
farmers) varieties, that may not be profitable, was feared. In this
context, participants frequently told personal anecdotes of no lon-
ger available varieties that they remembered from when they were
younger and which they associated with a distinctive taste, shape,
colour or consistency. Monoculture production was most often
blamed for the decline in crop diversity: So many crops are lost be-
cause of the monocultures. It's a great pity. Probably the original ones
too. For example, very tasty tomatoes that you might not find any more
(participant #046).
A second major concern was the increasing influence and power
of large- scale multinational companies (n = 156). Participants fre-
quently feared that the profit- orientation of agricultural companies
may lead to a neglect of social and environmental considerations. A
common belief in this context was that farmers, especially small- scale
farmers in the Global South, are increasingly dependent on agricul-
tural companies, which was widely perceived as unfair or bearing the
danger of exploitation. The recent merger of Bayer and Monsanto
was mentioned freq uently as an exampl e fo r in creasing market influ-
ence and monopolization, although Monsanto was occasionally con-
fused with other companies such as Nestlé or BASF: There are large
corporations, some of which are merging, such as Monsanto and Bayer.
Then they have a monopoly. And they tinker with the seeds and have all
the power. […] I don't want that (participant #030).
Another frequently mentioned concern was the health and
environmental impact of agrochemicals (n = 86). Personal health
concerns related to pesticide intake from food consumption and en-
vironmental damage through soil and water pollution were common
concerns in this context. However, only a few participants drew the
connection to seed production and breeding, with some participants
arguing that a focus on varieties geared towards the use of agro-
chemicals may inhibit transitions towards sustainable agricultural
practices: The varieties of the big companies [...] are geared towards
mineral fertilizers, pesticides. […] We definitely have to overcome chem-
ical inputs. It is harmful to us and the environment (participant #032).
A fourth concern was the reduction in the quality and taste of
produce (n = 66). Participants were particularly concerned about
a decrease in nutritional value and flavour due to a focus on other
breeding goals such as yield, stock quality and appearance. Modern
industrial varieties were argued to be overbred, at the expense of
qualities that are of highest importance for consumers: I think the
overbred varieties all taste like water. If I close my eyes, I can't tell if I
am eating a cucumber or a tomato. […] That really shouldn't be the case
(participant #167).
A fifth concern was the potential consequence of the introduc-
tion of GM varieties (n = 64). Here, participants most often feared
that genetic changes in varieties may be uncontrollable or irrevers-
ible and that GM products may not be labelled as such. Participants
frequently stated a loss of trust in the food industry in this context:
It is a huge problem that one has to be afraid to only get food on the plate
that is genetically manipulated […]. My trust in agricultural production
has been completely lost because of that (participant #197).
TAB LE 4  Frequency of codes assigned by flyer version
Main code c ategor y
# of codes
% of participants referring to the topic
(n = 228)
Flyer 1: Agrobio
diversity (n = 46)
Flyer 2: Market
Concentr. (n = 46)
Flyer 3: Gen. open- source
principles (n = 45)
Flyer 4: Privati-
zation (n = 46)
Flyer 5: Organic
agriculture (n = 45)
General open- source
522 85% 72% 87% 96% 85% 87%
Privatization 432 77% 76% 80% 67% 89% 73%
Agrobiodiversity 418 75% 93% 76% 67% 80% 58%
Market concentration 355 71% 70% 89% 69% 61% 67%
Other topics 260 57% 76% 61% 44% 48% 56%
Organic agriculture 254 50% 37% 54% 36% 46% 80%
Note: The color indicates the percentage of participants referring to the topic. The color coding is as follows: .
4.2.2  |  Solution perception: Perceptions of the
open- source seed license
From software to seeds: Transferability of the open- source concept
Transferring open- source principles from software to seeds was in-
tuitive for many, but not all participants. Most participants (n = 191)
were familiar with open source as a concept, and many (n = 134)
drew connections to creative commons licenses or open- source
software. However, transferring the concept from the digital sphere
to physical goods was challenging for some participants (n = 42).
Especially older participants, who were often unfamiliar with open
source as a concept, struggled to understand the principles underly-
ing the license: Open- source seeds are seeds that every farmer can use.
Or so? Huh? No, I am not able to explain it. I know open source from
software, but for seeds? It does not make any sense to me in this context
(participant #021).
Open- source seed licenses as a means to counteract privatization
The license was widely (n = 174) understood as a tool to prevent
the privatization and commercialization of seeds and varieties.
As such, the license was considered to propagate an alternative
model of seed production, which counteracts profit- driven indus-
trial agriculture based on intellectual property rights. Especially
in the explanation task, many participants (n = 154) stated that
they believe that the main purpose of the license is to protect va-
rieties from patents and other forms of privatization or commer-
cialization: In principle, [the license] means that the seeds […] should
be freely available to everyone and can be further developed […]. The
seeds should not be privatized. They are a public good and should re-
main so (participant #032).
Participants frequently (n = 143) assumed that an open- source
scheme would lead to improved access to seeds and planting mate-
rials. In this context, some participants referred to the freedom to
share and sell seeds (n = 69), some highlighted the freedom of being
able to reseed (n = 47), and others pointed to the freedom of using
open- source seeds as breeding material for new varieties (n = 27).
In the explanation task, the license was often (n = 41) described as
leading to collaborative breeding efforts and increasing farmers’ and
gardeners’ participation in variety development: With open- source
seeds, everyone can participate […] you can see which of the different
seeds work best in the local soil and then of course pass that information
on to other users. This is practically a joint effort to develop these seeds
(participant #144).
A frequently cited example (n = 21) for potentially negative con-
sequences of private ownership was the case of the popular organic
potato variety Linda. The variety was taken off the market in 2005,
when its variety protection license expired, stirring public outrage
and protest: There is the story with the Linda potato that was supposed
to be withdrawn from the market because after 30 years the license
expired, and the company would not have made any profit with it. […]
That's what happens without open source (participant #070).
Participants sometimes (n = 33) argued that varieties have
been developed over many generations of farmers and that further
breeding progress alone would not justify the privatization of ge-
netic resources. However, other participants (n = 26) pointed to the
need for patents and variety protection licenses as necessary finan-
cial incentivization to stipulate innovation and reward breeding ef-
forts. Most of these participants (n = 24) questioned the financial
viability of open- source varieties and stressed the lack of business
models to finance variety development under open- source schemes.
Only a few participants (n = 28) stated that they had not previously
heard or thought about the privatization of genetic resources.
Open- source seed licenses as a driver for agrobiodiversity
More than half of the participants (n = 158) believed that the open-
source seed license facilitates the conservation of agrobiodiversity.
In the explanation task some (n = 49) argued that seed production
independent from profit- oriented agrochemical companies would
fosterer crop diversity: If there are only a few large companies that
determine the prices and how seeds are produced, they can limit the di-
versity of varieties and determine which varieties are produced. So, it's
mostly diversity aspects. […] Open source culture is a kind of safeguard-
ing the plants, so that plant diversity is preserved (participant #097).
Participants also frequently (n = 33) reasoned that the open-
source seed license could help to avoid agricultural intensification
and monoculture production. Yet, they often remained vague as to
how exactly the license could help to foster diversified agricultural
practices. Several participants (n = 31) stated that they believe that
the license facilitates the development of locally adopted and/or
more robust varieties and as such contributes to climate change ad-
aptation: Especially because of climate change it would be good to have
as many different varieties of plants as possible that can […] adapt to
changing climate conditions. And for that, there are these open- source
licenses, I think (participant #011).
The protection of traditional varieties and landraces was also
frequently (n = 36) referred to. Some participants falsely believed
that the license contributes to agrobiodiversit y conser vation by pro-
tecting and/or (re)introducing traditional farmer's varieties: It is an
organization that is committed to raising awareness [and ensure] that old
varieties are available for […] our grandchildren and for us (participant
#076). The license, which is only applicable to newly bred varieties,
was, thus, falsely seen as an instrument to promote traditional vari-
eties and ensure their long- term protection.
Open- source seed licenses as a tool against market concentration
Participants commonly (n = 116) speculated that the license could
serve as a tool to prevent further monopolization in the seed sec-
tor by increasing seed supply channels. This, they argued, could lead
to a reduction of farmers’ dependency on profit- driven agribusiness
(n = 95): There are increasing problems, with large parts of the world's
seeds being developed and owned by a few corporations […]. Farmers are
becoming increasingly dependent since it breaks with the tradition that
they harvest their own seeds for the next year. [The license] counteracts
this and […] tries to keep them freely accessible […], so that farmers are
not dependent on these corporations (participant #071).
Furthermore, many (n = 84) believed that the widespread intro-
duction of the license could lead to a redistribution of power and
thereby to a democratization of the agricultural sector: Perhaps you
could say it is all about the democratization of seeds. […]. The seeds and
vegetables are no longer governed by a monopoly. […] It's a power shift
leading to democratization. […] So varieties remain a common good
(participant #116). A number of participants (n = 41) mentioned
hybrid varieties or the need of farmers to rebuy seeds every year,
with some participants (n = 13) assuming that the license would
only cover open- pollinated varieties and, thus, enable farmers to
save their seeds and replant them. Noticeably, several participants
(n = 39) assumed that especially small- scale farmers would benefit
from the license and improved access to seeds. Some participants
(n = 32) believed that farmers in less developed countries would be
the greatest beneficiaries of the license.
The impact of the open- source seed license on sustainable
A number of participants (n = 34) argued that the license would
support organic agriculture, but this was primarily stated by par-
ticipants who received the flyer on organic agriculture and breed-
ing: This is an initiative that supports organic farmers in gaining
access to seeds that are not patented. […] Open Source Seeds is about
promoting organic agriculture, yes, exactly (participant #170). Many
of these participants pointed to agricultural companies’ business
models based on selling seeds with complementary agrochemi-
cals and argued that the license could inhibit this trend. As such,
the license was brought in connection with more natural produc-
tion (n = 26). Moreover, open- source produce was occasionally
assumed to have higher nutritious qualities (n = 27) and better
ta ste (n = 18) th an ind ust r ial vari eties. However, ot her pa r tic ipa nts
(n = 26) were concerned that open- source licenses may lead to a
decline in the quality of seeds and varieties. These participants
feared that the license would stimulate breeding experiments and
lead to amateur varieties below industr y standards, with some
(n = 18) assuming that the license would exempt breeders from
any qualit y controls by the authorities.
Only a few participants associated genetic modification with the
license and the assumptions made with regards to this topic varied
widely. Although some participants (n = 34) ass ume d that th e licen se
would not apply to GM varieties, others (n = 24) were unsure if this
was the case. In this context, some participants (n = 22) supposed
that plants, rather than genetic sequences or biotechnological in-
ventions, can be patented in the European Union, which is not the
case at present.
Confusion about the term license
Nearly one- quarter of the participants (n = 48) considered the
term open- source seed license as misleading. These participants
argued that they associate restrictions and constraints with the
term license, which contradicts the free nature and accessibility of
open source. Some of these par ticipants (n = 26), thus, questioned
why a new type of license was necessary to oppose patents and
commercial variety licenses: Open Source Seeds License, if that's the
term, I don't think it's that good. [...]. So, it's accessible to everyone,
but if there are licenses, it is exclusive - some have licenses [...] and
others do not. So that's misleading somehow, it's a contradiction (par-
ticipant #080). There was also occasional confusion about who
would hold such a license, and participants sometimes (n = 16)
believed that the license must be purchased or obtained by the
farmer who wants to plant the seeds.
4.2.3  |  Attitude: Evaluation of the open- source
seed license
All but three participants were completely unfamiliar with the open-
source seed license and had never heard of it. Regardless, a large
share of participants had a highly positive attitude towards the li-
cense. Although some participants (n = 43) felt that they did not
have enough information to form an opinion about the usefulness
or necessity of the open- source seed license, the great majority
(n = 169) expressed a clear preference for the widespread adoption
of the license: This Open Source Seeds License is new to me. But if there
is such a thing, that's great. […] It should definitely be used by many who
have to do with it(participant #004). When describing the license,
participants frequently used terms such as supportable, (very) rele-
vant, (highly) important, genius, dearly needed solution or the right way.
Noticeab ly, even par ticipa nts who were una ble to expl ain the lic ense
in the explanation task often expressed a positive attitude towards
the license. In some cases (n = 23), participants reasoned that they
favour open source in general and hence support the license, despite
not fully understanding its implications for the agricultural sector.
Sixteen participants rejected the concept or were critical of
it. These participants did not see the necessity of adopting open-
source principles in the seed sector, were unsure about how the li-
cense can help address sustainability issues, or suspected a hidden
agenda or profit interests of the initiators: I am wary here. This seed
license – who gets it and who decides about it? Who is behind this with
which interests and intentions? And who controls and audits? I am very
skeptical that this will work (participant #206). Mistrust in the orga-
nization behind the open- source seed license seemed to be a major
factor in the negative evaluation of the license.
Several participants (n = 36) pointed out that they would wel-
come the introduction of an open- source seeds label to identify
open- source produce. Others (n = 24) expressed the concern that
in the face of the multiple demands placed on consumers to make
ethical purchasing decisions, they would not be able to consider yet
another sustainability aspect. Some participants (n = 21) questioned
the relevance of the license for consumers altogether, arguing that
the license had no relevance to them or that their personal scope of
action was limited: I don't know what they expect from me as a con-
sumer. Becaus e I don't have much to do with seeds. Unles s I want to grow
something on my balcony. But otherwise, I don't know - what do I have
to do with seeds? (participant #155). Table 5 summarizes the results
of this section.
Open source as a new type of ownership for varieties was largely
unfamiliar to participants, but both the TAP and the questionnaire
results indicate that most participants have a highly positive attitude
towards the open- source seed license. Noticeably, they seem to fa-
vour the concept, regardless of whether they fully understood its
functioning and consequences or not. There are several possible ex-
planations for this, which require further exploration and validation:
(1) Participants identified with the overall purpose of the license,
but did not have enough knowledge or mental resources to fully
understand the concept; (2) the positive connotation that most par-
ticipants had with open- source software and/or creative commons
licenses may have carried over to the open- source seed license; (3)
the simple reflection on the topic during the thinking aloud task may
have contributed to participants favourable attitude towards the li-
cense (c.f. Gielissen, 2011); (4) the non- profit orientation of the ini-
tiative generated enough trust in participants for them to evaluate
the license as a supportable cause, without fully understanding it or
(5) participants may have assumed that the research team expects
them to evaluate the license positively and may have thus been sub-
ject to a social desirability bias.
The open- source seed license was widely perceived as a counter-
model to current industrial seed production that inhibits the privat-
ization of genetic resources, conserves agrobiodiversity, enhances
farmers’ access to seeds and ensures their independence from
large- scale industrial companies. The privatization of genetic re-
sources was mostly rejected on ethical grounds and often perceived
to be part of a larger shift towards increasing power accumulation
by agribusiness that steered mistrust and disapproval. Confirming
the results of a study by Oehen et al. (2020), we can, thus, conclude
that German consumers prefer food systems that support farmers’
autonomy and enable farmers to take an active role in variety de-
velopment. Possibly based on a romanticized view of small- scale
agriculture, the prospect of supporting small- scale farmers through
open- source seed licenses was particularly appealing for some
consumers. This supports the notion that preferences for socially
responsible products are highly dependent on perceived benefi-
ciaries (Tully & Winer, 2014), with small- scale farmers typically re-
ceiving a high level of support (Moser et al., 2011). The license was
also assumed to lead to a democratization of the sector and improve
acce ss to seed s by gr ant ing the fr eed om to sell and sh are seed s wit h-
out restrictions. Limited access to seeds and genetic resources was,
however, not perceived to be a significant sustainability challenge.
Loss of agrobiodiversity was identified as a major sustainability
concern that open- source seed initiatives aim to address. Here, it
was often falsely assumed that the license particularly contributes
to the preservation of traditional varieties, which was evaluated
positively. These results are in line with studies concluding that
traditional varieties are typically associated with exceptional sen-
sory characteristics and cultural heritage and, thus, valued more
highly than modern varieties (Botelho et al., 2018). However, the
open- source seed license only applies to newly bred varieties, and
the assumed focus on traditional varieties was the most common
misconception. It highlights consumers desire for preserving known
varieties (Cerjak et al., 2014), as well as their lack of understanding of
the need to breed new varieties that are adapted to current agricul-
tural and environmental conditions. Sustainability- related aspects
that directly impact consumers such as the use of agrochemicals or
the breeding of GM varieties were identified as sustainability con-
cerns, but only seldom brought in connection with the open- source
seed license.
Open source as a new credence attribute allows consumers to
engage in critical consumerism and express their preferences re-
garding ownership rights of varieties and mode of seed production
through ‘buycotting’. This presupposes transparency on which vari-
eties are open source through the introduction of a label. Labels are
always a reduction of information complexities. As outlined above,
they can facilitate consumption choices by creating a guiding narra-
tive or storyline that stands for certain production processes. The
environmental, economic and socio- cultural impacts of open- source
varieties are complex and require an understanding of seed produc-
tion and breeding that goes beyond common knowledge. To be ef-
fective, labels and their associated communication strategies need
TABLE 5 Summary of results from the thinking aloud protocols
Problem awareness
Solution perception: Beliefs about the open-
source seed license
Attitude towards the open- source seed
Decline of agrobiodiversit y, especially the
loss of old varieties
Increasing influence and power of large-
scale multinational companies
Health and environmental impact of
Reduction in quality and taste of produce
Consequences of the introduction of
genetically modified varieties
Prevents the privatization of plant genetic
Contributes to the conservation and
enhancement of agrobiodiversity, especially
old varieties
Enhances (small- scale) farmers' access to
seeds and encourages collaborative variety
Prevents market concentration and ensures
the independence of (small- scale) farmers
May contribute to sustainable agricultural
Unclear relationship with genetically
modified varieties
Concept largely unknown
Favourable attitude irrespective of
understanding the concept
Rejection of concept when there was a
low level of trust in the initiators
Some questioning the relevance of the
license for consumers
to focus on ‘convincing consumers that [the attribute in question]
confer[s] a value added to the consumer, even if the value relates to
a broader public good aspect of the food and its production system’.
(Moser et al., 2011, p. 134). Communicating the added value of open-
source produce would, thus, require target- group specific narratives
that on the one hand capture the essence of the license as a tool to
inhibit the privatization of varieties and on the other hand highlight
the immediate benefits and relevance for consumers (c.f. Lauterbach
& Bantle, 2 019; Meier & Oehen, 2019; Schaffner et al., 2015).
Especially for credence attributes, which are not easily verifi-
able for consumers, trust is highly important since consumers often
suspect fraud or opportunistic behavior involved in certification
processes (Vega- Zamora et al., 2019). AGRECOL, the organization
behind the open- source seed license, is relatively unknown and
their credibility was questioned by several participants in the cur-
rent study. Establishing a credible certification agency and building
consumer trust would thus be important first steps for marketing
open- source produce under a labeling scheme. Because the term
open- source seed license was counterintuitive for many partici-
pants, consumer communication could simply refer to open- source
seeds, - tomatoes, - produce etc., to avoid confusion. Furthermore,
the use of an English term proved difficult for participants that are
less familiar with the English language, which were often older par-
ticipants. As a communicative tool, open source may, thus, primarily
appeal to younger and middle- aged, well- educated consumers that
are either tech- savvy and familiar with open source as a concept or
have a heightened awareness for sustainability concerns.
To what extent the positive evaluation of the license would
translate into demand for open- source produce is highly uncertain.
We have only examined endogenous factors (perceptions), neglect-
ing exogenous and structural factors, that are crucial in predicting
consumer behavior. As outlined above, it is well known that positive
perceptions and attitudes alone do not necessarily translate into be-
havioral intentions (Bamberg & Möser, 2007; Fraj & Martinez, 2007 )
and that sustainability labels play overall only a minor role in con-
sumer decisions (Grunert et al., 2014; Janßen & Langen, 2017).
Perceived consumer effectiveness, resource constraints, and other
factors that determine consumers’ purchase behavior are not con-
sidered here. Most importantly, we have focused on perceptions
rather than personal preferences (c.f. Lusk et al., 2014). Although
consumers may positively evaluate open- source seed licenses, it
remains unclear if these evaluations coincide with personal pref-
erences for taste, health, safety and quality. Improved quality and
taste of produce or health benefits were not commonly associated
with the license and sometimes even questioned. Yet, these attri-
butes are often major determinants of purchasing choices (Hughner
et al., 20 07; Moser, 2016; Rana & Paul, 2020).
A limitation, yet also a strength of this study is its non-
representative sample, which is characterized by a large share of
highly educated consumers that regularly purchase organic produce.
Although the self- stated purchasing behavior differed significantly
between the two samples, even in the conventional supermarket
sample more than two- thirds of participants reported being (very)
likely to purchase organic produce at least once a week. These re-
sults are significantly higher than the national average (see Table 2)
but are in lin e with find ings from Marreiros et al. (2021) who observe
a similarly high level of consumption of organic products in Berlin. In
addition, the area of study, the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, is known
for its high share of inhabitants with green- leftist political attitudes,
which likely affected the results and may partially explain the overall
highly positive evaluation of the license. However, this also bears the
advantage that the sample has a clear overrepresentation of those
consumer segments that most likely engage in critical consumerism
and are, thus, the primary target group for open- source produce.
Gaining insights into the perceptions of specifically those consumer
segments is especially helpful for marketing purposes. Although the
findings may not allow for generalizations to the larger German pop-
ulation, they do indicate that highly educated, organically minded
consumers in urban areas are a suitable target group for open-
source produce.
Methodological challenges lay in the explorative character of the
method of thinking aloud. The method does not suit all personality
types and it is difficult for some people to verbalize their thoughts
while receiving new information. Furthermore, the setting can seem
unnatural to participants, since they receive no feedback from the
researcher during thinking aloud. This can lead to situations where
participants filter their thoughts based on perceived expectations
(Häder, 2015). For these and other reasons, TAP are often used in
triangulation, for example in combination with survey data or post-
experiment interviews, to support credibility (e.g. Risius et al., 2017 ).
We chose to combine the method with a short questionnaire and
the explanation task, which allowed us to provide a fuller and more
credible picture of participants’ perceptions.
In recent years, open- source seed initiatives have been founded to
ensure access to plant genetic resources for current and future gen-
erations. The first open- source produce is now entering consumer
markets. With ownership properties of varieties posing a new cre-
dence at tribute that gains in relevance as an increasing share of con-
sumers attempts to purchase ethically and/or sustainably produced
products, we examined German consumers’ perceptions towards
the German open- source seed license.
The open- source seed license is widely understood to provide
a counter- model to current industrial seed and agricultural produc-
tion. Specifically, it is believed to (1) prevent the privatization of
plant genetic resources, (2) contribute to the conser vation and en-
hancement of agrobiodiversity, (3) support (small- scale) farmers and
(4) prevent market concentration.
Our findings make a valuable contribution to the marketing ef-
forts of open- source produce by shedding light on the properties
that consumers attribute to the license. We can conclude that by
drawing upon a concept that consumers are likely already familiar
with from open- source software or creative commons, open- source
seed licenses provide a communicative entry point that draws at-
tention to specific sustainability concerns in the agricultural and
food sector. The high level of approval for the concept indicates a
marketing potential for open- source produce. As awareness for
production conditions beyond farming methods and place of culti-
vation rises, open- source produce may act as a niche innovation that
shifts power relations and influences regulatory frameworks to sup-
port sustainable seed production and breeding. Nevertheless, open
source as a new type of variety ownership remains a novel aspect
for consumers and will require the deliberate creation of narratives
that relate to consumers’ needs and preferences. The introduction of
an open- source label would provide the transparency that is neces-
sary for consumers to distinguish open- source produce. Since other
sustainability aspects such as local and organic production will likely
remain consumers’ primary sustainability concerns in the foresee-
able future, it is wor th considering integrating the open- source con-
cept into the standards of well- established certification systems and
The research is of relevance to gain a better understanding of
the role of consumers in safeguarding biodiversity through con-
sumption choices and the potential of such licenses for steering
consumer behavior. The paper contributes to a rising academic dis-
course on sustainable consumption and critical consumerism (c.f.
Paul & Bhukya, 2021), by introduci ng a new cred ence at tribute that
has previously not been explored: variety ownership. Our research
shows that, although abstract in its nature, consumers are able to
link the concept of open- source varieties to sustainability con-
cerns, specifically agrobiodiversity loss – a topic whose complex-
ity is difficult to convey to consumers (c.f. Bantle & Hamm, 2 014a,
b; Kleinhückelkotten et al., 2006). By drawing attention to a po-
tential new label, the research also contributes to discourses on
eco- labels.
Policy implications include the need to support the introduction
of a trustworthy and credible open- source label that relates to con-
sumers’ needs and preferences and enables breeders and seed com-
panies to establish open- source varieties as sustainable alternatives
to industrial private property- based varieties. Diversified food sys-
tems, based on participatory on- farm breeding and diverse seed- and
production systems, foster resilient food- and agricultural systems
that are needed to face climate change and other socio- ecological
challenges of the 21st century (Kliem & Sievers- Glotzbach, 2021;
Lammerts van Bueren et al., 2018; Meier & Oehen, 2019). Yet, open-
source produce can pose only one of several elements of a larger
policy framework conducive to the preservation and enhancement
of genetic diversity.
We propose three main future research directions: (1) Further
research may examine consumers’ willingness to pay for open-
source produce, especially in relation to other sustainability attri-
butes such as organic and regional production or fair trade. This
could provide insight s into the relational importance of variety own-
ership as a sustainability- related credence attribute. In this context,
the potential integration of open- source aspects in existing labeling
and certification schemes could also be explored further. (2) It would
be interesting to examine consumers’ perspectives on open- source
seed licenses in other industrialized countries to allow for greater
generalizations on the potential of open source as a new credence
attribute. (3) Additional empirical research on specific open- source
foods is necessary. Because this study focused on fresh produce, it
would be valuable to examine the perceptions and marketability of
processed food based on open- source varieties such as open- source
bread, - pasta or - cookies.
We would like to thank Bio Company GmbH , EDEKA Siebert GmbH,
Stiftung Domäne Dahlem and Mosaik- Berlin gGmbH for their sup-
port in carrying out this project. We would also like to thank Nils
Marscheider, Janik Berger, Katja George, Samyra Hachmann,
Anahita Bidjanbeg, Lisa Priebe and Arne Stamer for their assistance
during data collection and processing. We thank Johannes Kotschi
from OpenSourceSeeds, AGRECOL e.V. for his valuable insights and
Wolf- Peter Höhner from designerei27 for his graphic design support.
We highly appreciate the feedback we received on the manuscript
from our colleagues Florian Kern, Katharina Menger and Stefanie
Sievers- Glotzbach. Finally, we would like to express our gratitude
to the participants of this study for taking the time to share their
thoughts with us. Open access funding enabled and organized by
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
The data that support the findings of this study are available from
the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
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