Seed: the start of something

30 Sep 2019
Originally published in NIAB TAG Landmark - Issue 39 (September 2019)

Seed has been at the core of NIAB’s business since it was established in 1919, writes Margaret Wallace, NIAB's senior technical manager in its ACC team.

However, before we get started on NIAB’s role in seed certification, we should probably establish some common vocabulary, notably seed is not grain. Seed crops have a very specific set of rules that must be followed to legally produce seed to be marketed. Crops grown to produce seed are more costly than crops grown to produce grain as measures are taken to ensure higher purity, although the returns tend to be higher. Growers rely on the variety purchased being the variety grown so varietal identity is crucial to the seed certification system. Seed certification is a quality assurance-type scheme used to deliver quality seed to the growers. The current system has been in place for many years, with improvements on risk-based strategy implemented along the way.

Where it began

Seed production began long before NIAB was established. A UK plant breeding and seed production industry existed by the end of the 19th century. The industry governed itself, some opting for a voluntary scheme organised by members of the trade. If an ‘official’ seed test was required, samples were sent abroad. In 1901, a committee of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries was set up to review the seed trade with the majority of the committee recommending that the UK should establish its own national testing station. The recommendation was not taken up. Eight years later the Irish Board of Agriculture set up its own national seed testing station with the Scottish Board of Agriculture following suit in 1914.

NIAB’s eventual founder, Sir Lawrence Weaver, was instrumental in the passing of the Testing of Seeds Order 1917 and a seed testing station was set up within the civil service. Samples of seed lots were submitted for purity, germination and weed seed contamination tests. The results of the tests were given to the buyers. The Order also gave representatives of the three national testing stations permission to enter premises where seed was being sold, take samples (without payment) and submit it to the same three tests. Seed not meeting prescribed standards could not legally be sold. The Order did not apply to cereal species as the testing was deemed too slow and would delay drilling of the following year’s crop.

The Cereal Seeds Advisory Committee (CSAC) first assembled in May 1917 with the aim “to organise a national co-operative to manage the trade in improved crop varieties”. The Committee identified four wheat varieties – Wilhemina, Victor, Little Joss and Browick – to focus on. Crops were identified and the selection team, led by Sir Roland Biffen, head of the Plant Breeding Institute, visited the farms and decided if the crops were worth buying for seed – the first field inspections.

Farmers were paid a bonus for the harvested material to ensure the higher purity and quality standards were maintained. Traders acted on behalf of the Department to pay the growers, but did not benefit from this arrangement, so unsurprisingly the seed stocks were not sold to growers and the majority was sold as grain.

The following year minimum germination standards were introduced. The other big change in 1918 was the addition of cereal species to the Seed Testing Order. The establishment of a seed testing station in London was the start of Sir Lawrence Weaver’s influence on UK agriculture, including the founding of the National Institute for Agricultural Botany in 1919, in part to help address food security issues arising from the First World War. The Official Seed Testing Station moved to the Institute’s new building on Huntingdon Road in Cambridge in 1921, becoming part of NIAB and accounting for around 80% of the business.

The International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) was founded at an international seed testing conference held at NIAB in 1924. This independent organisation has been developing seed testing methods, supported by the non-profit co-operation of experienced seed scientists and analysts ever since. NIAB, as the Official Seed Testing Station of England and Wales, has contributed and continues to work towards the group vision of “uniformity in seed quality evaluation worldwide”.

The link between NIAB and government remained strong. In 1942 when the UK was once again at war, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries turned to NIAB to request the formation of a Seed Production Committee (SPC). This included farmers, representatives from the seed trade and scientists, all to be collectively responsible for producing quality seed in the UK, for the UK.

In 1944, NIAB launched the first Recommended List and, as a seed producer as well as tester, committed to certifying all seed it produced. Inspections were carried out in the field during the growing season and a representative from NIAB would be present during harvest and packing. This service was open to other seed producers who wanted to have their seed officially certified.

Aftermath of war

Following the end of WWII, the four-year Marshall Plan was put in place with the inception of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) in 1948. This programme removed trade barriers to allow the rebuilding of Europe’s economy. The OEEC continued to function throughout the 1950s.

The introduction of the Cereal Field Approval Scheme in 1955 meant that representatives of breeding companies and trade could carry out field inspections, provided they had been trained by NIAB. The area of inspected crops doubled in the first five years. The Comprehensive Certification Scheme was also introduced, aimed at providing top quality seed stocks known as ‘foundation stocks’ – early generation production. Crops entered for this scheme were inspected by NIAB staff only.

It was a pre-requisite to the Recommended List trials that varieties had been entered into the Schemes by the original breeder, therefore records of varieties and seeds were kept. A breeder’s control of a variety and its production came ahead of the Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) legislation, introduced in 1964.

In 1959, NIAB reviewed the production system and believing the supply of seed of a new variety was not good enough, restricted the sale of seed to only those who had participated in the Field Approval Scheme in England and Wales, or an official scheme elsewhere.

Formation of OECD

On a wider scale, the continuation of the OEEC was being questioned. These discussions led to the convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which was signed in1960. The UK was a founding member of the OECD in 1961, which had a more global outlook than the former OEEC. The Seed Schemes were introduced, harmonising procedures for seed production across member states to encourage the use of high quality (officially controlled) seed.

Fenwick Kelly, who became a deputy director of NIAB, played a vital role in the development of these Schemes, the beginning of NIAB’s close involvement. NIAB still acts as the co-ordinating centre. Maintaining the list of varieties eligible for seed certification under the OECD Seed Schemes is part of the co-ordinating centre’s task list – the 603 page document covering 204 agricultural and vegetable species can be downloaded from the OECD website (although searching the online database is easier).

With an increasing seed trade within the UK and across the OECD members, the seed bag label was adapted to indicate the year of release from the breeder and the purity of the seed being purchased. This system remains today with specific requirements for labelling included in the Seed Marketing Regulations.

NIAB’s Seed Multiplication Branch was moved to the National Seed Development Organisation (NDSO) in1967, which were then responsible for the production and sale of nationally funded varieties. NIAB ceased to produce seed commercially, a move to confirm its independence.

Modern times

Today, NIAB is contracted by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to oversee the day-to-day seed certification system in England and Wales. All crop inspectors active in England and Wales, official and trade, are licensed by APHA, but trained by NIAB.

Plots from samples of all seed lots entered for certification in England and Wales are grown and assessed for varietal identity and purity. The Agricultural Crop Characterisation Team at NIAB are skilled in identifying plants that do not conform to the description of the variety using characteristics that some may consider obscure. Have you ever looked at the hair on the inside of a glume on an ear of wheat? It can be very telling!

On the face of it, small differences in botany can appear to have very little effect on a crop. However, that tiny difference could be indicative of a major problem. If a wheat variety chosen for breadmaking qualities is contaminated with a feed wheat, the grain will be rejected. Seed certification aims to reduce the risk of that happening by providing a system that tightly controls the early generations of seed to ensure the correct purity levels are achieved for the end user. Of course, there are many things that can go wrong in a risk-based system, but if it does, the seed certification process allows the tracking of seed lots so the source can be identified and the effects mitigated.

The words of former NIAB Director Graham Milbourn in 1987 remain as relevant today: “the potential for improved crop varieties can only be achieved in practice when farmers, skilled in producing seed crops, can convert the breeders’ genetic material into marketable seed-lots for crop production”.

NIAB’s role in promoting a transparent system where all stages of the process, from breeder to end user, benefit has influenced policy on a local, national, European and global stage. The current team continue to advise Defra and APHA on issues affecting the industry, particularly in these uncertain political times where stability of seed supply is so important to UK agriculture.

NIAB’s role as co-ordinating centre for OECD provides an insight to the seed systems in place across the 61 member countries. It also means that we are aware of new developments such as the increasing use of molecular techniques to complement traditional phenotyping methods for seed certification or developing standards to apply to varieties produced using new breeding techniques. Seed certification at NIAB has a long history, but is always moving forward, most recently with the move from Huntingdon Road to our new facilities at Park Farm, on the outskirts of Cambridge.

Who knows what the future will hold!