Bejo once again continued its tradition of holding a technical seminar to coincide with its Open Days at Warmenhuizen at the end of September. However, this year the topic was slightly different: Exploring seed, from seed to seedling!
As Christine Jong, Bejo’s Area Business Manager for Western Europe pointed out, although Bejo is a seed company, this is the first time that the symposium has focused on a general topic, such as seed production and seed quality, rather than the technical details of a particular crop like carrots or alliums.
As with other parts of the food and farming value chain, seed production and processing is adapting rapidly in the face of changing regulations and the development of new technologies. It is also a topic of great interest to growers and advisors and it was necessary to run the same event on two different days in order to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.
During the event three key themes emerged: How Bejo produces quality seed and maintains seed; how changes to the regulation of plant protection products are affecting available seed treatments; and how to give your seeds and seedlings the best start in the field.
Top quality genetics
“Delivering top quality genetics has always been our priority, but you expect seed that is healthy and free from any diseases,” pointed out Sales Director Martin van der Voort. “You want seed that is free from impurities, and which germinates perfectly, with good vigour and high levels of uniformity. Our seed should also match perfectly with your sowing equipment, and you want your seeds protected against pest and diseases for the first period of growth.”
Several speakers pointed out that a number of seed treatments have lost their approval in recent years and that there is a number of products which could be challenged in the near future.
Sylvie Tissot (EAME Regulatory Team Lead SPS and Seedcare, Syngenta) and Griet Vergauwe (Head of Regulatory Benelux, Syngenta) explained how the regulations work in the European Union, and how the regulatory environment is creating challenges for the approval of new products, which, like new varieties, typically take between 10 and 15 years to develop. One effect of the new regulatory guidance is that existing plant protection products are being lost faster than new products can be brought to market. Despite the challenges, Sylvie stressed, “Our aim is to develop new, safe chemicals which don’t have any of these hazards.”
The loss of chemical plant protection products makes it even more important that the seed used by growers is as healthy as possible. Bejo is trialling and adopting a number of new techniques, including new and improved priming and coating processes, as well as Bejo’s B-Mox® seed treatment; automatic sorting techniques based on seed colour and shape and new techniques like x-ray and hyperspectral imaging; and improved seed cleaning using hot water or steam vacuum treatments.
Seed quality is comprised of a number of factors, including production, cleaning, seed testing, processing, seed treatment, storage and transport, and seed or crop establishment. Bejo produces 1,200 varieties across 50 different crops, and its organic assortment contains 192 varieties from 45 crops. To maximise quality and reduce risk, seed is produced across the world, with around 6,000 ha of outdoor production and a further 150 ha of indoor production, which is more secure and allows for tighter controls on pests and diseases. Bees play a key role in pollination and seed production, with over 10,000 colonies (1,000 of which are in the Netherlands) responsible for pollinating 80% of the crops – one reason why Bejo is investing heavily in bees and beekeepers.
You want seed that is free from impurities, and which germinates perfectly, with good vigour and high levels of uniformity
All of the seed passes through Warmenhuizen, and each batch is tested at every stage of processing. On average, each lot of seed will be tested 25 times between arrival and despatch to the customer. “We have to think ahead to guarantee the availability of seed and so we need to work together across the value chain,” explained Operations Manager Remco Witte.
Of course, seed forms the first part of this chain, and, as well as discussing some of the techniques used to assess plant vigour, Corine de Groot, Bejo’s Research Manager for Seed Physiology, pointed out how priming seed can be used to improve crop establishment. “Priming is an important part of the work we do,” she explained. Priming provides the embryo in the seed with just enough water for it to begin to grow, but not enough for the seed to germinate. “We dry it back just before germination and then the seed is ready to germinate as soon as you put it in the soil,” she added. “Priming helps to provide fast and even germination across a wide range of sowing conditions.”
Research Manager for Seed Pathology Research at Bejo, Bert Compaan, pointed out that, like humans, seeds are covered with both beneficial and harmful (disease causing) bacteria and fungi, and so testing is used to identify any issues in terms of seed-born disease. This is another area where technology is developing quickly and there has been a shift from visually inspecting germinated seeds for symptoms of disease, to using molecular testing to identify potential issues, which is both faster and also more accurate.
“If we have an infection on the seed we have two options,” said Bert. “We can throw the seed away or we can treat it.” Hot Water Treatment and steam vacuum treatment are both very important and effective processes, and while there has been a reduction in the availability of plant protection products for use as seed treatments, seed coatings and seed treatments continue to play an important role in maintaining seed health.
Sowing and soil health
How the seed is handled and sown also has a huge impact on the crop, and Reinoud Tepper of precision drill manufacturer Kramer, the perfect start, explained why it is important to use the right setup for each and every type of seed, as well as considering factors such as soil type and even weather conditions. As with the rest of the supply chain, new technologies such as electrically-driven drills, are introducing new levels of precision to the process of crop establishment.
Soil health and structure also plays a key role in crop establishment and subsequent yield and quality. Pius Floris of Plant Health Cure explained why it may be time to review what we know about how plants grow, and in particular how their roots take up water and nutrients. He argues that increasing levels of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi improve the health and vigour of crops, as well as helping to undo some of the damage to soil ecosystems caused by artificial fertilisers and chemicals.
As Martin van der Voort pointed out, as a seed company Bejo does everything within its control to supply healthy seeds, but as an individual seed company it cannot solve all problems on its own. Symposia like this are therefore important as they allow the full range of industry stakeholders to discuss and understand the issues.