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Should canola seed vigour tests be mandatory?

Seed grower welcomes news that BASF is using a third party to investigate plants' failure to thrive bu says more transparency is needed.

WESTERN PRODUCER — As certified a seed grower, Mike Shewchuk provides his customers with vigour test results for the seed he sells off his farm in Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan.

It’s information he said should be available on every bag of canola seed sold in Canada.

“If I’m selling seeds to a customer from my seed farm, I’m happy to share those results. It goes through Discovery Seed Labs,” Shewchuk said.

“But if I go to a company and say ‘hey, what’s the vigour on this hybrid canola seed?’ they’ll give me the germination, but they will not disclose any vigour results.”

His concern over the lack of transparency on seed quality came to a head this spring when some of the InVigor hybrid varieties he planted emerged as weaklings.

Twitter revealed he wasn’t the only unhappy canola grower. Social media images of side-by-side comparisons alleged InVigor was visibly lagging. Growers speculated about the cause because the same thing happened in multiple growing regions.

Shewchuk said the crops did not recover over summer.

“We lost a lot of plants just because they were so weak and flea beetles ate them. We tried to keep up spraying for flea beetles, but naturally, there were a lot of plants lost just because they were just very unvigourous,” he said.

“They came up and they were just basically a stick standing there. One of the biggest issues is they are about two weeks late.”

In June, BASF released a statement that said some InVigor hybrids “may be encountering various challenges that could be hindering crop establishment this season,” and that the company is looking into it.

Shewchuk said he was glad BASF is using a third party to investigate the issue but he thinks more transparency is needed.

As president of the Saskatchewan Seed Growers’ Association, he put forward a motion at the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association annual general meeting in July to make seed vigour testing standardized across Canada.

“It’s not something new. It’s been on the table for years and years, the need to develop an industry standard vigour testing method, but it’s never been developed.”

At the end of August, Brent Collins, head of seeds and traits at BASF Canada Agricultural Solutions, said the emergence problems some growers reported this spring with InVigor hybrids were not related to seed vigour.

“While the discussion around establishing standardized vigour testing across Canada is not new, we understand that with the establishment challenges some canola growers experienced this season, it has resurged as a topic,” Collins said.

“The topic of vigour, I can share with you, is unrelated to what we experienced in the field this year.”

Next year, BASF plans to use a different seed treatment on its InVigour canola seed in response to poor emergence by some of the company’s hybrids last spring.

“We’re going to move to Helix® Vibrance® as the core seed treatment package and we’re going to take that to the market in 2023. In parallel with that we’re going to continue to do our investigative work to make sure that we make the correct diagnosis, if you will, in terms of what we believe are the factors and what were the triggers for those factors,” Collins said.

Last year, BASF launched its Vercoras seed treatment for canola seed that offered protection from seed and soil-borne diseases like blackleg, as well as baseline protection against flea beetles.

BASF has not decided if Vercoras will be available for spring of 2023 because it’s still investigating the emergence problems with its InVigour hybrids.

At the CSGA meeting, Shewchuk’s motion passed, so the CSGA will work with Seeds Canada and other seed industry partners to expedite the process to standardize seed vigour testing across Canada.

Shewchuk said he understands there are hurdles to overcome before vigour testing can become mandatory for canola seed.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces to it, and a lot of fancy molecular words that I don’t understand, but at the end of day farmers need better protection and to know they are putting good seed into the ground.”

He said buyers and sellers of seed benefit from having as much information up front as possible because if there is a problem, and a lack of information or poor communication, there is room for speculation on what caused the issue.

Collins said before seed vigour testing could be standardized, the industry must ensure consistent testing protocols are in place and that any standards bring value to the industry.

“While there is some historical research available, with the advancement of new genetics and traits, it is important that there be further research both in-lab and also in-field to ensure that any standardized testing protocol again reflects seed emergence vigour.”

He said all BASF canola seed has multiple tests, including vigour tests at different temperatures, at multiple times in the lifecycle of the seed.

“It’s done numerous times, like after harvest, after cleaning, after the application processing, after the seed treatment. We get seed back as returns at the end of the year,” Collins said.

“During the lifecycle of that seed, if it’s two, three or four years, there’s numerous times that the protocol is deployed to measure vigour.”

He said there is no magic formula in terms of how old its canola seed is before it no longer meets BASF standards.

“We ask that all InVigor (seed) is returned, whether it’s from the grower or from the channel back to us, because our goal is to ensure that they have the best experience the following year,” Collins said.

“If seed is carried over from one year to the other, sometimes there is deterioration. So, we need to bring the seed back and quality check it again before it’s allowed back into the market.”

Sarah Foster is an accredited seed analyst at 20/20 Seed Labs. She said before mandatory vigour testing can happen, the CSGA and Seeds Canada must request a specific test to become standard on a specific crop. Then the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would provide accreditation.

She said the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) already validates vigour tests for numerous crops that have been adopted in many jurisdictions.

“Looking at the (ISTA) vigour committee, there are a number of standardized tests that are acceptable worldwide for corn, canola, and pulses, and I believe there’s some other tests that are acceptable for cereal,” Foster said.

Once the CFIA, the Seed Growers and Seeds Canada agree on a specific test, then each lab would have to bring the test into the scope of their accreditation. There could be no deviation from the test.

Foster said it wouldn’t take much work to adapt the standardized vigour tests recognized by ISTA to Canadian agriculture.

“From the laboratories’ perspective, most labs if not all labs here are quite sophisticated, and they would have all the necessary equipment if they decided that they wanted to go into that particular line of work,” Foster said.

She said vigour testing seed has not been made mandatory in any country in the world.

“But there are countries in the world that do follow standardized procedures, and I think ultimately that’s what the CSGA could get,” Foster said.

She said the seed regulatory modernization underway in Canada is a good opportunity to implement standardized testing not just for vigour but for many characteristics.

“With this big regulatory modernization, we’re actually saying can we get some standardized procedures for thousand kernel weight, for seeds per pound and some diseases,” Foster said.

“Some (labs) are using DNA, some are using plate for diseases, and then all the other stuff that goes on behind the scenes for additional quality information above and beyond just the purity in the germination.”

Brett Galambos works at Westgreen Crop Inspections. He said few farmers keep samples of the seed they plant, but this is an effective way to protect yourself if a problem arises.

“In order to have a sample to send in to confirm suspicions on low germination or low vigour, you would have to have a sample and you should know what your seedlot number was,” Galambos said.

If growers keep their seedlot numbers, some seed companies will provide information from their internal testing on the seed, but a seed sample should still be kept.

“The vigour numbers and germination numbers could be 95 percent on both, but there’s a long time between when the sample was done potentially and when it was planted and maybe something happened,” Galambos said.

“The onus needs to be on the grower just a little bit, to say I’m keeping a sample, I’m keeping my tags, I’m keeping better records on my farm of this because often when there is an emergence issue, growers don’t have this information and it’s difficult to prove anything.”