Protecting seed – and our food supply
Many seeds – whether in your own garden or in a farmer’s field – fall prey to insects or disease before they have time to germinate and produce food.
Farmers use seed treatments to protect against specific diseases and improve the establishment of a healthy crop. Seed treatments are substances or specific techniques that are applied to the seeds or seedlings (young plants) before they are planted. You can find seed treatments on field crops like canola, wheat, barley and mustard, for example, and on vegetable crops, like carrots, cabbage and broccoli.
Seed treatments act as a kind of insurance policy for farmers to ensure seeds or plants will grow, stay healthy and produce high-yielding crops. They are critical tools in helping plants develop at the time when they are most vulnerable.
An ancient practice using the latest technologies
Throughout history, farmers have looked for ways to protect their crops from pest damage. The earliest reported use of a seed treatment dates back to 60 AD when wine and crushed cypress leaves were used to protect seeds from bugs while in storage.
Since the 1990s, new pesticides and new technologies have improved pest control while reducing the impact of chemicals on farmers and the environment. Many new seed treatments can fight a broad range of diseases and insects, making them more effective and efficient.
What is in a seed treatment?
Seed treatment “recipes” can include many different ingredients, each of which has a specific role in protecting the seed from a particular insect or disease. Other recipes maximize the health and vigour of the seedling as it is developing by providing nutrients and minerals to help the plants flourish.
Most seed treatments fall into three categories: fungicides, insecticides or antimicrobial products.
- Fungicides are chemical compounds or organisms used to kill fungi or their spores.
- Insecticides are substances used to kill insects, protecting against both the insect as well as the larvae that feed on the freshly planted seeds.
- Antimicrobials kill or slow the growth of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi like mold and mildew.
Finally, seed treatments often include inoculants, which can improve microbial activity in the soil. Microorganisms are essential to healthy soil and help plants take up the nutrients they need to grow.
Why are seed treatments so colourful?
Seed treatments are required by Canadian law to be brightly coloured (ie, in a manner not found on the untreated seeds) to let buyers know that treatments are on the seeds. This ensures that chemically treated seed is not mixed in with grain that will be used for food. Also, applying colour to the treated seed helps farmers tell immediately what type of seed and chemical solution is on the seed in the case of a spill.
The colour of a seed treatment will depend on, for example, the seed type, the pesticide in the treatment or the seed brand. In Canada, colours for treated seeds are regulated under the Pest Control Products Act and must meet certain requirements. For instance, treated canola seed is always a distinct baby blue colour. Treated cereal crops, like wheat and barley, are pink or red.
Seed treatments support better environmental practices
Lots of people ask why farmers don’t just spray chemicals onto their crops – why all the fuss with seed treatments? Well, they can and do spray their crops if needed. But seed treatments generally use smaller amounts of pesticides than spray treatments do.
They also protect the seed right from the time it goes into the ground and helps it get off to a healthy start. The earlier a farmer can protect their crop, the more that crop will produce.
Using less pesticide also reduces the risk of exposure to pollinators and wildlife, and minimizes chemical runoff into streams, ponds and lakes. In addition, seed treatments require less handling, reducing potential health risks for farm workers.
Are seed treatments safe?
Agriculture is one of the most heavily regulated industries. New products – both seed and chemical applications like seed treatments – go through years of research and testing. Once products are ready for market, Health Canada evaluates them for safety and regularly re-evaluates products already on the market.
Seed treatments usually break down in the first six to eight weeks after the seed has been planted. In most cases, seed treatments can no longer be detected by the time the crop is harvested.
Overall, the new seed treatments are more effective, control a broader range of pests, and are much safer to use for both the applicator and the environment than they were even 10 years ago. Seed treatments are one of the many valuable and innovative tools that enable Canadian farmers to grow more food, all while protecting themselves, the land and our natural resources for the future.