Throughout the seed value chain, there is a lot of testing going on. There is testing for seed quality, germination, variety identity and purity, pests and diseases, for distinctness, uniformity and stability and other forms of testing.
It starts very early. During the variety development phase, breeders start testing their new potential varieties in various environments in different countries and continents, to see where is the best fit(s) for their new creations. Further on, once the variety is at the point where it can enter the commercial phase, a series of official tests need to be performed.
Farmers and growers expect high quality seed, and to test seed quality, the seeds are evaluated according to internationally agreed rules for seed sampling and testing. It is easy to imagine that a lack of information on seed quality could quickly result in crop failures and has the potential to threaten food security for entire countries.
In many countries, a variety can only be sold once it has entered the national or regional list for plant varieties. As part of the application process to add a plant variety to such a national list, the plant variety must be tested to ensure it is distinct (D) from any other variety of common knowledge and that it is sufficiently uniform (U) and stable (S), or “DUS” in short. In a similar manner, plant breeder’s rights can only be granted after the examination of the variety has shown that it complies with the requirements for protection, i.e. that the variety passes the “DUS test,” which is based mainly on growing tests, carried out by the authority competent for granting plant breeders’ rights or by separate institutions, or, in some cases, on the basis of growing tests carried out by the breeder. The examination generates a description of the variety, using its relevant characteristics (e.g. plant height, leaf shape, time of flowering), by which it can be defined as a variety. More and more this testing is supplemented and enhanced by molecular techniques.
And varietal identity and purity of the seed are tested with the help of appropriate requirements and controls throughout the growth cycle, seed processing and labelling operations. Examples of such requirements are generation control (with the categories Pre-basic, Basic and Certified seed), isolation distances, purity standards, field inspections, lot sampling, post-control plots and compulsory official laboratory analysis for each certified seed lot.
In certain countries, the official authorities or research institutes carry out crop performance tests to provide farmers, extension personnel, and private seed companies with agronomic information on varieties of the major field crops. Such trials are professionally managed and conducted in a research-based manner to minimize variability and insure the integrity of the results. This level of expertise and professionalism make that the performance reports issued are a premier source of objective third party information on current varieties.
But we’re not only testing the seeds. Let’s take soil testing for example. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the European fields are soil sampled on a regular basis. And this is surprising, as soil testing should form the base for many of the other components of a farmer’s plan for the coming year. And what makes things worse is that of the small percentage of fields sampled, many are likely not sampled properly or analyzed fully. In my mind, a soil sampling routine is a first step in maximizing crop outputs to feed a growing population. To understand what is in your soil is the first and foremost benefit of a soil test. One can compare a field with a bank account, and a soil test as the statement. As a farmer, one cannot just keep pulling out nutrients without putting a sufficient amount back or eventually you are going to run into problems.
As with all testing, one golden rule applies: having uniform standards across countries for all the various sorts of testing, facilitates seed trading nationally and internationally, and contributes to food security. A patchwork of national implementation is serious barrier to the seed trade and prevents the full use of fantastic and life-saving innovations in countries that need them the most.
But why do we test? Like in software development, we carry out variety testing for very similar reasons: a) it is required to point out any defects and errors that were made during the development of the variety; b) it is essential since it ensures reliability and customer satisfaction in the variety and the breeding company; c) testing is important to ensure the quality of the product. A quality product delivered to the customers helps in gaining their confidence; d) testing is required for an effective performance of the variety.
More precisely, we can state that variety testing enables us to make objective assessments regarding the degree of conformity of the variety to stated requirements and specifications. In other words, does the variety live up to the standards that we have collectively agreed upon and that the farmer and grower expect to find in the seed bag. Variety testing provides validation that the whole seed value chain meets user needs. Such procedures also contribute to further improving the quality of the product. Identifying mistakes in the candidate variety underpins the need to do better the next time.
And then there is another reason why we test: in situations where products need to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, variety testing can safeguard the organization from legal liabilities by verifying such compliance.
Ultimately testing is required to stay in the business.