Breeding and uncovering new traits in domestic crops has evolved over the centuries. The development of new varieties continues to be critical to managing weather and growing conditions, disease and pests in crops today.
Certified seed is the final product of a long process that requires significant investment from government, the public sector, farm retailers and the support of growers.
Plant breeders spend years isolating traits and working toward new varieties that will serve growers, food processors and consumers. To ensure the variety captures the full benefits of a plant-breeding program, rigorous protocols are in place to ensure the seed can be labelled and sold as Certified. Certified seed enables growers to get not only a new variety, but the best of that variety.
There are many steps needed and four years or longer of successive production to get a seed variety from the research and development stage to a farm, and have it designated as certified seed with the distinctive blue tag.
“There are sequential stages in the lengthy process; breeder, select, foundation, registered and finally, Certified seed,” says Ryan McCann, Director of Seed for Nutrien Ag Solutions. “We can trace any seed through the seed lot number, through the crop certification number and the various inspection stages all the way back to the original breeder seed.”
Certified seed is the result of hard work designed to deliver specific plant breeding achievements to farmers and the food industry. It is true-to-type, meaning all the benefits developed by the plant breeder will still be there generations later once in the Certified seed stage.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) along with the Canadian Seed Growers Association (CSGA) have established strict standards for each stage of pedigreed seed production. Seed growers must follow these rules to maintain crop purity. This is especially important to maintain yield, quality, disease resistance and other distinguishing characteristics of the variety.
Certified seed is recognizable by the blue Certified tag of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that accompanies each sale of seed. This tag means the seed and crop has been inspected by an officially recognized third-party agency, been produced by dedicated Canadian seed growers according to stringent requirements. It has undergone a carefully monitored production process, passed the quality assurance requirements of varietal purity, germination and freedom from impurities, and is ready for commercial use.
Only about 20% of growers in Western Canada make the choice to buy Certified cereal seed each year with the balance opting for farm-saved. “There are distinct benefits to growing Certified cereal seed and those who are reluctant to buy new genetics may be leaving money on the table,” adds McCann. Currently it is estimated growers trade up their genetics and purchase Certified seed every five years on average. McCann believes that it should be more frequent. “Growers aren’t likely to choose Certified seed every year, but they should be upgrading their agronomics and varietal purity more frequently than every five.”
A great deal of care and attention is spent to ensure that Certified seed will serve the needs of growers.
“Certified seed is a good investment to make,” says McCann. “For 200 acres of seed, a grower may spend around $1500 more on Certified seed than if they used bin run or farm-saved seed. This is a relatively small investment to ensure the best possible purity and yield potential.”
Contrary to common beliefs, farm-saved seed does not come without cost. There exists the associated commercial value of the crop as well as the potential for lost market opportunities. In addition, there is the cost to the farm of carrying inventory, cleaning, transportation, testing and more. The investment of purchasing high quality Certified cereal seed that is tested and guaranteed is a sound one when compared to bin run.
Choosing Certified seed starts the season off on the right foot. “Growers are putting hundreds of dollars per acre into the ground by optimizing fertilizer blends and applying leading crop protection products. Why not also start with the best cereal seed available?” asks McCann.
New varieties are advanced based on progressive merit. For a variety to receive the support and investment of a seed company, it must have marked improvements. This merit typically comes in the form of improved disease and pest tolerance and accompanying higher yield potential. Growers stand to benefit from these improved agronomic packages.
“As new varieties are released they will be better in one way or another, than the variety they are growing today. If a grower isn’t keeping up with new genetics, his profitability may be falling behind,” says McCann.
Certified seed does come with guarantees – including germination, level of purity and the best possible genetics. “Quality issues are very rare because of the care put into raising Certified seed. We stand behind the product including addressing any concerns with quality or purity,” says McCann. Samples of all Certified seed are held for three years if any lots need to be traced back to their source.
Aside from accessing the latest technology available to maximize ROI and inputs on-farm, purchasing Certified seed also supports the research and development that goes into creating new seed varieties. “For every tonne of Certified seed sold, the retailer pays a royalty. That fee goes back to the breeder to support further R&D on new varieties,” says McCann. The royalties the breeders receive do not cover the costs of R&D, so government and the public sector, including seed companies, take on a significant portion of the cost. To continue to encourage investment into breeding new varieties the Agriculture industry has protected the rights of the plant breeding sector.
The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) was adopted in Canada in 2015 and has created some excitement in the industry.
“There is energy behind plant breeding in cereals and that will lead to some newer varieties,” says McCann. “The new UPOV legislation gives breeders more confidence that they will be able to regain some of their investment in seed breeding and that those who circumvent the rules can be held accountable.”
McCann believes that Certified seed pays off in many ways. “Growers that choose Certified seed are making an investment. They are giving themselves the best chance for success and investing back into research for future varieties.”