AMES, Iowa – Farmers have many options for improving and increasing yields throughout the growing season, but the most important factor is arguably to start with quality seed.
There are roughly 800 private seed companies in the United States and about 75 within Iowa – all that make claims about the quality of their seed and how well it will perform for the producer. Many of these companies rely on sound science, much of which is based on tests conducted by the Seed Science Center at Iowa State University.
A world-renowned center for testing seed, the Seed Science Center has provided objective, research-based information for the United States and countries around the world for more than 100 years.
“Seed is the foundation of agriculture. It’s the beginning and the renewal of agriculture,” said Manjit Misra, director of the Seed Science Center. “To have good agriculture we must have good seeds.”
With 194 affiliates, including graduate students, the center tests over 45,000 seed samples annually, from 300 species, and has helped improve seed access and distribution in more than 79 countries.
Unlike the United States, where seed businesses are privately owned and operated, the governments in many countries produce, distribute and market seeds as well as regulate the seed industry. One of the center’s goals is to help other countries re-examine their seed laws, which in some cases are antiquated and in need of an update.
“We first go and help them to look at the big picture, assess their seed system, how seed is produced, improved and marketed, who is doing this and how,” said Misra. “Then, we help them to make any improvements and updates that will benefit their system and their people.”
In the U.S., certified seed for exports are required to follow the National Seed Health System – which provides standardized phytosanitary tests so that all accredited labs use the same methods of testing. The Seed Science Center administers this program on behalf of the United States Department of Agriculture. Certification is required to export seeds internationally, and the U.S. exports about $1.7 billion in seed annually.
Although they have a global footprint, the center is committed to farmers in Iowa and across the Midwest. Farmers and other individuals can bring seed in for testing at their leisure, or send it through the mail, in properly packaged bags.
“We help people all over the world, but we are very Iowa-centric,” said Misra. “When Iowa needs something, we are here.”
Cynthia Hicks, communications specialist for the center, said seed testing was especially active during the COVID pandemic, because the center was one of the few testing sites that remained open.
“We stayed open during the pandemic, when a lot of other seed labs shut down,” said Hicks. “Our business during that time probably doubled, because we were still open to our farmers in Iowa.”
The center operates an extensive laboratory that can test for seed purity, germination and vigor, with more than 350 tests for pathogens. If a test is needed but does not exist, the staff at the center can develop one. There is a fee for such testing and it varies by the seed type and the test. Customers can call the seed laboratory on how to sample, pack and send for testing.
The center also provides training and educational opportunities for seed producers and companies, including for those who clean, condition and bag seed. About 30 workshops are provided annually (in-person and online) in the United States and around the world.
A newsletter called the “Iowa Seed and Biosafety News” is also available and is emailed to subscribers annually in more than 50 countries.
Seed programs are also available for undergraduate and graduate students, including a unique Seed Technology and Business master’s program, which is offered online to students around the world.
“The students are our ambassadors,” said Manjit. “They take Iowa State to the world, helping to feed and nourish the world.
Making a difference
Misra estimates that as many as 80% of the world’s farmers do not plant quality seed. His goal is to bring that number down, so that quality seed will become more available.
In 2019, the Seed Science Center worked with filmmakers to produce a six-part video documentary called “Seeds! The Diversity of Wonder.”
The video shows the importance of quality seed with visits to farmers and seed experts from around the world, including African nations and women farmers from Africa.
It’s all part of the Seed Science Center’s mission of improving production and use of quality seed around the world.
“Our goal is to increase access to quality seed by the farmers in as many parts of the world as possible,” said Misra. “Whether that’s in Iowa or east Africa, our staff is committed to making a positive difference in the lives of others.”
Shareable photos: 1. Agronomy Professor Susana Goggi gives a class tour in the Seed Science Center lab. 2. Michael Stahr, seed laboratory manager, examines sprouts. 3. Seed Science Center worker placing seeds on a wet cloth to start germination.