|Corn kernels which have
been treated for planting.
If you stop and think about it, germination is a pretty awesome thing. We take a teeny tiny little seed, stick it in the ground, wait a few days, and we start to see a little plant pop out of the dirt.
To some extent, the success of those tiny seeds just has to be left up to fate. But there are a lot of dangers that the seed and plant have to survive those first few weeks. We have tools to limit the risks to those seeds and help those little plants get a good start. One way is through the use of seed treatments. I first discussed seed treatments briefly during one of my very first Farming Fridays! articles.
Unfortunately, the typical fear-mongers have attempted to twist the practice of seed treatments into something dangerous. Among the worst offenders is the Oregon ballot proposal campaign to require mandatory GMO labels. A commercial produced by the labeling initiative’s supporters claims the seed treatment is some type of freaky toxins that are put on GMO crops and hurt consumers.
Reality, as usual, is a completely different — and a much less scary — story.
How do seed treatments help?
Seed treatments are applied for a variety of problems that the seed or brand new plant may encounter upon planting. All seeds, whether they contain genetically engineered traits or not, may have treatment options available. Conventional crops, including hybrids that are not considered GMO, can be treated. And yes, even organic farmers use some types of seed treatment.The goal is to protect the seed once it is put into the ground so it can grow into a strong and healthy plant. Imagine all of the potential problems that seed may encounter out in nature – insects, disease, bacteria, and fungus.
I asked my friend and Pioneer seed salesman John to give me the scoop on the different options available for farmers. According to John, the basic seed treatments include fungicides and insecticides applied to prevent early disease and insect feeding. Farmers can also choose to have additional treatment that will help the seed germinate, target certain microscopic insects like nematodes, or protect the seed from fungal pathogens, such as phytopthora root rot and seed corn maggots.
Farmers can also opt for custom seed treatments, depending on the seed company and the farmer’s individual needs. Brian, a farmer in Texas, explained to me that he buys custom seed treatments for his grain sorghum (which, by the way, is not available with genetically engineered traits) with the pesticide “Cruiser.” This actually stops “sucking insects” from damaging the crop while it is small and vulnerable. On his cotton seeds, he purchases an additional fungicide called “Dynasty.”
Giving the plant a good start helps farmers grow better quality crops with higher yields.
In organic farming, the seed treatments are for a slightly different purpose, which also means the result is different. But these include priming, pelletizing, and the use of hot water or NOP-compliant protectants. You can read more about the treatments and differences here.
Are seed treatments safe?
Much like every other aspect of agriculture, there are strict guidelines and regulations imposed by the federal government through the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the Federal Seed Act lays out the regulatory framework for seed treatments. Clear labeling is required on seeds that have been treated, including the precise name of the treatment given. Just as with any other pesticide, seed treatments are also regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Rodenticide, and Fungicide Act (FIFRA) by the EPA.
|Soybeans just harvested –
no seed treatment.
There are also substances treated on seeds that are not allowed to be used for food, feed, or oil products. That means you won’t find those types of treatments on any seeds which will eventually turn into food for human consumption.
As always, it is important to remember that the dose matters. The amount of the fungicide or insecticide applied to the seeds is very small. The seed isn’t very big and doesn’t need much of the treatment. The efficacy of the seed treatment is usually gone within 4 to 5 weeks. Once the plant gets a little bigger it develops a natural ability to protect itself from most of these concerns.
Finally, it may be worth noting that when the crop is harvested in the field — regardless of the purpose — there is no coating on the seeds. Just because a little seed was put into the ground with some type of treatment does not mean the crop will come out of the field with a seed treatment on it. If you walked into any corn field that started with seed treatment, you would could easily see that the kernels of corn are a golden color, not blue or pink or purple. Treated crops would not be accepted for sale at any grain handling facility.
How does the seed treatment effect the environment?
Of course, as farmers, we’re naturally concerned about the environment and the impact that any of our modern practices have on it. We’ve seen improvements here too! Seed treatments are actually a better way for farmers to get the type of protections needed for their crops when compared to other methods. Consider this:
Modern seed treatments coat the outside of the seed providing very targeted protection. The amount of active ingredient introduced to the environment with seed treatments is only 10% of that contributed by in-furrow treatments; and it’s only 1% of foliar sprays. This technology also facilitates a no-till, precision agricultural operation that protects fragile soils; reducing erosion, compaction and loss of nutrients, and helping to ensure that every seed planted can grow.
Why the color?
The seed in the photo above is blue-green, but seed treatments can come in an array of colors – blue, green, pink, or purple. Frank, a farmer from northeast Iowa, explained that although the treatment is put on to protect the seed, the colors act like a type of code that clues the farmer into what type of seed is being used. For example, seeds that have the Round-Up Ready genetic traits may be dyed green. Seeds that use the Liberty Link genetic traits may be colored purple.
This way, even if the seeds are no longer in the packaging, a farmer can quickly and easily identify the type of seed being used.
If you would like to learn more about seed treatments, the best people to talk to are those actively engaged in farming. I asked a number of farmers and seed dealers to contribute to this article and they were more than happy to answer any questions! It should go without saying that an anti-agriculture campaign or other fear-mongers are not very reliable sources.
If you’re more comfortable reading on your own, I suggest this article posted on Ask the Farmers. Otherwise, for more information on seed treatment, check out the following link for the American Seed Trade Association: