Although seeds have been treated since ancient times and the value of protecting seeds at an early stage is globally recognized, the practice of seed treatment has recently been subject to increasing scrutiny. That is why it is important to repeatedly underline and highlight the value seed treatment brings to agriculture. This includes the basic principles of why seeds are treated, and what role seed treatment plays in a sustainable IPM program.
The logic of seed-applied technologies is irrefutable. Seed treatment protects a plant in its infancy when it is vulnerable and at risk of attack by various pests and diseases. The basic principle of seed treatment can be compared to a vaccination in that it provides preventative reassurance. Seed treatment may not be necessary if there is a pest-free year, but if pests arrive (and past experience shows that they are always present to some degree), being protected is far more efficient than trying to find a cure. Take the example of measles: if there is an epidemic and you are not vaccinated, the consequences can be very serious, even fatal.
“Seed treatment gives seeds the best possible chance to develop into healthy plants and therefore helps achieve the best yields,” says Ralf Glaubitz, Head of Global Asset Management, SeedGrowth. It can also reduce the overall use of crop protection products through highly targeted application, thereby reducing non-targeted wildlife and environmental exposure. Abrasion-reducing seed coatings limit dust emissions to ensure easy application and safe handling. Minimizing field input also means fewer trips onto the field, and that not only reduces a farmer’s costs, but also his water usage and carbon footprint. However, if seed treatment is clearly an advantageous solution, why do some people still questions the role of seed treatment as a component of IPM?
The principles of Integrated Pest Management
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines IPM as “the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment.” Generally speaking, a successful IPM strategy consists of three key steps: monitoring, prevention and, as a last resort, intervention.
Monitoring is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture and the foundation for any prevention or intervention. Various tools are used to decide if pest pressure has reached an economic threshold: visual observations, early diagnosis systems, and disease and pest forecasting. Often, plants in their infancy are harmed by soil-dwelling pests such as wireworms that are hard to observe or capture through early diagnosis. Once a pest infestation becomes apparent, it is often too late and a farmer normally has to resort to costly curative tools to protect the remaining yield. Proactive measures of control, such as seed treatment, are therefore a good fit in an IPM approach because they effectively and efficiently combat a pest population’s growth and prevent the farmer from having to resort to additional rescue measures.
For the grower, prevention of pests and diseases in a crop starts before planting with selection of crop varieties; planning an appropriate crop rotation; applying suitable cultivation techniques for the specific conditions in each of the fields, with the least invasive techniques normally used to preserve the ecosystem; and planning a strategy to prevent pest population growth through scheduling regular monitoring and using predictive modelling. If this planning process reveals that no other measure can satisfy crop needs, preventative plant protection measures such as seed-applied technologies are often preferred by the grower, as they can provide a sustainable solution that justifies the investment.
Intervention is a last resort measure. Curative solutions such as foliar-applied plant protection products have their place in Integrated Pest Management when all preventative actions, be they cultural, mechanical, biological or chemical, have failed or are not available. These solutions can be effective in mitigating ongoing plant damage caused by pests such as aphids or various fungal diseases.
Case Study: Oilseed rape in the EU
As a key crop for food, feed and fuel, oilseed rape has been an excellent break crop in European farmers’ rotation schemes – and brings financial benefits. But in recent years, farmers have been increasingly concerned about heightened pest pressure, for example from the cabbage flea beetle, which can cause 30-45% crop damage. The EU restrictions on neonicotinoid seed treatment mean that seed-applied technology to control this pest is no longer available. The only tools remaining for control of this pest are less effective pyrethroid spray treatments that often require two to three applications to establish control. And that results in higher costs for the farmer. Consequently, oilseed rape production is in decline, which highlights the need for effective crop protection.
There is a cost attached to having seeds treated, so no farmer takes the decision lightly. In the future, farmers will be increasingly making data-driven decisions on the combination of seed treatment, nutrition and foliar products needed to reach yield targets. “For good reasons seed treatment will continue to be a critical and much-needed element of sustainable farming and effective IPM,” says Ralf Glaubitz.