Have you ever really thought about seed? Beyond poring over your seed catalogs and getting excited about new varieties or the return of tried-and-true selections, many farmers may not be thinking about all the factors that contribute to a quality seed experience. When seeds don’t work as expected due to poor germination, plants with disease susceptibility, or taste that just isn’t there you can bet that they won’t be used again, while the ones that perform will become standards on that winter seed order.
So what does it take for seed catalogs to offer high-quality seed for a variety of growing conditions? Who is out there selecting seed, breeding plants and collecting, sorting, drying and handling seed for the utmost in quality? What choices are there that differentiate different breeding programs and seed sources?
Traditionally, farmers saved seed from their plants, selecting the traits that proved best suited to their needs. Often today, farmers simply order seed from a catalog, or the seed dealer, without giving too much thought to how these seeds are made available. Many growers are not aware of the resources needed to grow seed, and no longer actively save their seeds or work on breeding plant varieties suited to their specific growing requirements.
With the advent of genetically engineered (GE) seeds about 20 years ago, seed saving and breeding became even more complex, with controversies over patented technologies, ownership issues and even court cases brought against farmers who saved their own seeds if those seeds were suspected of having been contaminated with genetically engineered crop seed, whether the farmer intended that to occur or not.
“Maintaining and improving the integrity of a variety in seed production is a skill that once was commonplace in farming operations,” Micaela Colley, Executive Director of the Organic Seed Alliance (http://www.seedalliance.org) said. “For seed production, the farmer needs to manage a seed production field with the intent of growing high-quality seed from the majority of the plants in the field. The primary objective must be the seed crop in order to ensure a high quality seed.”
OSA held numerous seed stewardship educational training programs in 2014, Kristina Hubbard, Director of Advocacy and Communications for the organization, said. Lack of training, lack of economic opportunity and lack of seed processing facilities were commonly cited as factors keeping producers from producing seed commercially.
Simply growing a vegetable crop and collecting seed from it is not what makes a commercial seed producer. Growing seeds is much more intensive than that, involving selecting out poor-performing plants, and growing the crop longer, until seeds set and mature, which means a longer time to fight weed, pest and disease pressures.
“Seed production also requires knowledge of the biology of the seed crop and sometimes specialized equipment to produce larger amounts of high-quality seed,” Colley said. “In most cases, producing a high-quality seed requires growing a species that is well-suited to the local environment, and the climatic requirements of a seed crop may be very different than a vegetable crop of the same species.”
Diversity is a good thing in biological systems, and having many farmers across the nation growing seed commercially, or at least saving their own seed, helps to enhance the resiliency of the crop. With locally adapted varieties, and seeds that express certain quality traits, farmers in all regions can produce crops that thrive.
“Farmers are still active in plant breeding thanks to organizations like OSA and public plant breeding programs, including those at Oregon State University, Washington State University, University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, and others,” Hubbard said. “However, farmers used to be much more involved in seed systems. Many more used to participate in on-farm research and seed-saving, and we need to keep building this collective knowledge base to ensure crop diversity is maintained for future seed and food security.”
Seed treatments and genetic engineering
Food security is one topic that always includes some discussion of advanced technology in crop production, including genetic engineering. Because food begins with the seed, it is no surprise that the treatment of seeds with a variety of chemical or biology components has become a focus in the agricultural sector. A variety of seeds are available that have been improved by technology, giving them attributes not normally expressed by the plant, such as herbicide resistance, whether through treatments applied to the seed, or through genetically altering the seed.
“Farmers should ask their seed supplier how their seed was produced,” Hubbard said. “By talking to their seed suppliers, farmers can better understand the source of that seed: who grew it and where; and under what environmental conditions.”
Seed treatments are added to provide the seed with certain desirable traits. The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) (http://www.amseed.org) has an online guide available at http://seed-treatment-guide.com/ covering all aspects of treated seed.
Seed becomes treated by the application of biological or chemical additives, which are meant to decrease disease and insect pressure, increase yields, increase vigor and increase farm revenue, according to ASTA materials. Early seed treatments included using saltwater brine solutions. In the 1960s, chemical treatments were pioneered, and biological treatments became available in the 1990s.
Seed Applied Technology includes any combination of treatment products, polymers, colorants, inoculants, micronutrients, biologicals and other components. Plant growth regulators, seed coatings and herbicide safeners are some of the common active ingredients, which may be found in treated seeds. Farmers opting to use treated seeds do have to follow label instructions for safe use, storage, transportation and disposal of leftover seed. Because some of the components of treated seeds can cause environmental or physical harm, there are regulations concerning their use.
In genetic engineering, genetic material foreign to the seed is inserted, to provide the seed and the resulting plant with a particular trait. Resistance to herbicides or insecticides, the ability to create its own insecticide as in Bt crops, or the tenacity to withstand extreme growing conditions, such as drought, are some of the GE traits available for various crops, currently primarily row crops and sweet corn.
The possibility of these GE crops interbreeding with non-GE crops is one of the major concerns facing agriculture today. The non-GE seed industry is extremely concerned about the potential for contamination. This concerns the GE industry as well, and has impacted the ability of farmers to save seeds from their crop fields when nearby fields were planted with genetically-engineered crops.
Using GE technology is not the only way to develop seeds that can help to protect a crop against threats. For centuries, farmers have saved seed and bred plant lines that offer the crop some advantage, tipping the odds of survival in its direction.
“Traditional breeding can also combine genes in new ways, creating more diversity,” Jared Zystro, Assistant Director of Research and Education at OSA, said. “By developing excellent new varieties using ‘new’ genes or new combinations of genes, genetic diversity in our agriculture landscape increases. Growing plants under the stresses that might be encountered by a farmer allows a plant breeder to select for traits and genes that contribute to the performance of the plant in those conditions, without even necessarily needing to know exactly which genes are present.”
Selecting for upright growth, for example, can prevent fruits from touching the ground, thus decreasing the incidence of disease. Having selected seeds from plants showing these traits, and breeding to continually select for that trait in healthy plants, ultimately can decrease the reliance on chemical inputs, he said.
“At Organic Seed Alliance, we promote decentralized plant breeding, encouraging more farmers and researchers to become involved in the traditional breeding process,” Zystro said. “The more people developing varieties of seed based on different genetics and based on different criteria, the more diversity of seed and of crops we will see in agriculture.”
Making the selection
While many farmers may feel strongly about certified organic seed, or champion the use of biotechnology in seed development, selecting the correct seed source for your farm’s production involves more than these attributes.
“There are many quality standards of seed beyond being organic or GE,” Colley said. “Seed is commonly tested for percent germination, purity from weed seed and other contaminants, and for the absence of seed-borne pathogens. In addition, there are seed certification programs or foundation seed programs that certify the physical and genetic qualities of the seed.”
To help farmers make informed choices when selecting seed, OSA and eOrganic have teemed up to compile a database of organic seed variety trials, available here: (http://varietytrials.eorganic.info/). Extension agents, university researchers and seed dealers can often provide localized trial data as well.
Many seed companies run their own trials, and provide information and data to help growers understand the process and select proper varieties. Johnny’s Select Seeds has trial information here: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/t-seed_variety_trials_about_johnnys.aspx. Seedway conducts trials at their farms in Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as in conjunction with universities and in farmer field trials across the nation (http://www.seedway.com/vegetable_seed/Pages/Seedway-Product-Trials.aspx). And many seed companies have developed their own proprietary varieties, so finding a unique, uncommon seed is always a possibility.
Selecting the right seed for your farm’s needs involves assessing your specific growing conditions, as well as the needs of your markets. While your farm and climate must meet the growing needs of the crop, the crop’s characteristics need to be valued by your intended customers. Flavor may win over yield for direct marketers, while seedling vigor might be the deciding factor for those battling adverse field conditions. Days to ripening, yield, pest and disease resistance and postharvest holding ability are important for all farmers, no matter whether they are selecting certified organic seeds, traditionally bred, non-GE seeds, or GE seed varieties.
New varieties can offer traits that the old standbys lacked, or can fill in a harvest window or avoid pest pressure with early or late season ripening, possibly providing the opportunity to grow a crop that until now hasn’t been well-suited to your needs. Making the best decisions takes time and a bit of research.
There are hundreds of companies selling seed. This list from North Carolina State University offers a look at the seed companies working on plant breeding here in the United States: http://cuke.hort.ncsu.edu/breeding/pbsurvey/brdseedco.html, offering promise of more diversity, resiliency and choices in the years ahead.
COVER COURTESY ROBERT HADAD, CORNELL UNIVERSITY