Have you ever stop to consider how incredible the process of germination really is?
We put a tiny little seed into the ground and, if the conditions are right, it will soon sprout into a tiny little plant. That tiny little plant grows into the crops that we harvest in the fall, and eventually, ends up as the food we buy at the grocery store. Along the way, however, there are a variety of things that could go wrong, especially in the very beginning. Farmers want to minimize factors that can harm seeds as a way of protecting those seeds, giving them a good start, and maximizing yields at the end of the year.
That’s one reason why farmers utilize seed treatments — to give those seeds and tiny plants the best start possible.
What are Seed Treatments and How Do They Help?
Imagine all of the potential problems that a seed may encounter out in nature – insects, disease, bacteria, and fungus. Seed treatments are designed to protect the seed from those risks. Basic seed treatments include fungicides and insecticides applied to prevent early disease and insect feeding. Farmers can also choose additional treatments that help the seed germinate, target certain microscopic insects, or protect the seed from fungal pathogens. Farmers may opt for custom seed treatments depending on the seed company and the farmer’s individual needs. An important part of selecting appropriate seed treatments is knowing and understanding the risks for the specific crop being planted, as well as understanding the unique factors impacting the crop’s success in the location it is being planted.
The goal is to protect the seed once it is put into the ground so it can grow into a strong and healthy plant.
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. 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 organic treatments and differences here.
Regardless of production methods, giving the plant a good start helps farmers grow better quality crops with higher yields.
Are Seed Treatments Safe?
Much like every other aspect of agriculture, there are strict guidelines and regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the safe use of these products. 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, pesticide-based seed treatments are also regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Rodenticide, and Fungicide Act (FIFRA) by the EPA.
Practically speaking, the risk posed to humans from consuming foods that started as treated seeds is minimal.
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 potency or effectiveness 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 the original concerns. It is worth nothing that 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.
Once the crop is harvested, it is just like any other crop. In other words, just because the seed was put into the ground with some type of treatment does not mean the crop will come out of the field with some kind of treatment on it. If you walked into any corn field that was planted with treated seeds, you would find that the kernels of corn are a natural golden color. Treated crops would not be accepted for sale at any grain handling facility.
How Do Seed Treatments Affect the Environment?
Naturally, farmers are concerned about the environment and the impact that our agricultural practices have on it. But while you may assume that this practice has a detrimental effect on the environment, it is actually the opposite! Seed treatments allow farmers to provide a very targeted protection. In other words, it provides only the protection the seed needs and no more. The alternative is to apply the desired treatment into the dirt where we bury the seed.
Consider the following:
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.
Seed treatments allow farmers to use less active ingredients in a more precise manner…and that’s good for the environment.
Why are Seed Treatments So Colorful?
Treated seeds are usually fairly colorful, but isn’t just for fun!
Seed treatments come in a variety of hues – blue, green, pink, or purple. First, the color allows farmers to quickly identify that the seed has been treated with something, so those seeds will not be accidentally put back into the food chain. Second, depending on the seed company and type of treatment used, the color may identify what treatment was applied to that particular seed. That way, even if the label or packaging goes missing or gets ruined, a farmer can quickly identify which type of treatment was applied to that seed.