How Seed Production Works
Commercial seed production has evolved significantly since Gregor Mendel first bred a few peas in an Austrian monastery. Today, seed companies around the world develop hybrids and varieties then produce the commercial quantities of their seed needed for a burgeoning agriculture.
There is no substitute for quality seed. Today, well-established seed brands are known for their quality. These companies stand behind the performance and quality of their seeds and are rewarded for this in the marketplace. For smaller brands, certification provides a level of quality assurance. For example, the Federal Seed Act requires that at least 95 percent of the seed in a bag be of the variety named on the bag to safeguard against excessive mixture with other unintended varieties.
As biotech traits have developed, some seed production practices remain the same and some have evolved. The procedures for increasing quantities of available seed - known as "bulk up" remain essentially unchanged. However, new standards and analytical tests are needed to confirm that the biotech trait is present in the seed at proper levels. These production standards are aimed at the original goal - delivering a very high level of product quality.
With the value of commercial seed, companies take great care in producing high-quality products. Seed companies follow their own strict production guidelines for isolation, identity standards, field inspections, sampling and testing. Many companies have achieved ISO certification for production processes as a means of establishing quality safeguards that can be met each and every time.
One area of concern for seed industry stakeholders is the potential for movement of pollen among production fields. Standard isolation distances that will consistently produce seed of specified quality/identity levels have been derived from studies conducted on corn over many decades. Replicated studies have shown these well-established distances significantly reduce the potential for gene flow.
In addition to distance or spatial barriers to pollen movement, companies may use physical and temporal barriers. Taller plants can be placed around a field to provide an impediment to pollen movement. Another way to reduce pollination between crops is to separate pollination timing. Since pollen is produced during a limited time period and remains viable for only a short time, planting crops three to four weeks apart will itself eliminate almost all the opportunity for cross-pollination.
In the real world, the transport of pollen happens as a naturally occurring process - indeed, nature designed pollen to carry genes from one plant to another. It's a natural and unpreventable phenomenon that can cause low levels of unintended and sometimes unwanted mixing of different varieties. Within commercial seed production, the goal is to reduce the risk of such adventitious presence and to achieve a high degree of genetic consistency.
The production of seed corn is quite different than the production of grain corn. Corn produced for grain is allowed to pollinate itself and/or its neighbors in what is referred to as an "open-pollinated" system. The harvested grain is then used in a variety of food and feed uses, but not reserved for seed.
Almost all seed corn today is produced through hybridization. In this process one variety of corn produces pollen to fertilize a second variety, which has been de-tasseled (the (male) pollen producing organs are removed) so it cannot fertilize itself. Because so much grain corn is grown in the Midwest, hybrid seed production and bulk up is often done elsewhere (South America and Hawaii are commonly used) and in the off-season. Overall, three types of isolation practices - distance, impediments, and time - help reduce the frequency of unwanted gene flow into seed corn via pollen transport.
Commercialized seed products have passed rigorous testing with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Most seed companies meet or exceed all national and international standards with regard to isolation and quality production practices. Companies monitor processes to improve quality and success rates. In the end, companies want to give customers what they want, and product quality is critically important in today's competitive agriculture economy.
Monitoring Laws and Standard-Setting Groups
In addition to instituting their own requirements, seed companies are working together regionally, nationally and internationally to establish better guidelines for biotech seed production. The industry wants a level playing field and a set of international standards against which to gauge the quality of its varieties and hybrids.
Several groups set standards for production and monitor the sale and transportation of seed. Among these organizations, various standards act to guide the production of high-quality commercial seed.
OECD Seed Schemes. Certification by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is applied to varieties that meet established conditions of identity, uniformity and stability. OECD certified varieties have an added economic value and are published in official OECD lists. More than 55 countries participate in the OECD Seed Schemes helping to set and adhere to international standards for commerce and quality. The annual list of products includes about 37,000 varieties from 191 species.
The OECD Schemes help ensure the varietal identity and quality of seed by setting appropriate requirements and controls throughout production, processing and labeling. Certified seeds are produced and officially controlled according to common harmonized procedures. OECD certification provides official worldwide recognition of "quality-guaranteed" seed, facilitating international trade and contributing to removal of technical trade barriers.
Federal Seed Act. The U.S. Federal Seed Act is essentially a truth-in-labeling law covering the sale of seed in interstate commerce and seed imported into the United States. The law requires seed to be labeled with information allowing buyers to make informed choices. It also helps promote consistency among state laws and fair competition within the seed trade.
Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies. AOSCA is dedicated to assisting companies in the production, identification, distribution and promotion of certified classes of seed. Established in 1919 in the United States, the organization has grown to include members from around the world.
AOSCA establishes minimum standards for quality and identity. Its goal is to standardize certification regulations and procedures internationally so companies compete under one set of standards. The association cooperates with the OECD and other international organizations to develop standards, regulations, procedures and policies to expedite movement of seed and encourage international commerce in improved varieties.