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  • 100 Years of Innovation in Seed Treatment

Uspulun

The first effective seed treatment for controlling fungal pathogens in cereals

Golden fields of wheat wafting in the breeze, large ears ripe for harvesting: the dream of every cereal farmer in mid to late summer. But for many centuries the reality was very different: whole fields would turn black, as if burnt by fire. What was the cause of the blackening, and how could a remedy be found?
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A problem of biblical dimensions

The problem is as old as the Bible – there are at least two references to the ‘blasting’ of cereal crops in the Old Testament. In past centuries it was even thought of as a divine punishment on wicked farmers. But as scientists in the Age of the Enlightenment  began to look for less otherworldly reasons for occurrences in nature, the French researcher M. Tillet discovered in 1755 an ominous a vicious circle – the black powder the grains crumbled into fell on the ground and infected the new seed. Decades later, scientists discovered fungal spores in the black powder and in the early 19th century, the cause of those devastating losses in cereal crops was finally pinned down: fungal diseases such as bunt, smut or yellow rust. From then on, all kinds of remedies were tried in a vain attempt to combat the fungal pathogens that ruined cereal crops year after year: ash, pulped olives, leek juice, saltwater, sodium sulfate, copper carbonate, liquid manure, copper vitriol and even arsenic. You name it farmers tried it.

A brilliant Bayer chemist

The first sign of hope came at the end of the 19th century when US scientists identified mercury chloride as an effective means of fighting fungal infestation. The only drawback: some of the treated seeds lost their ability to germinate. But in 1911 Dr. Georg Wesenberg, the Head of the Bacteriological Laboratory in Bayer's Pharmaceutical Department, began researching into the subject and discovered that chlorophenol mercury effectively controlled fungal pathogens without impairing the treated seeds’ ability to germinate. That was the decisive breakthrough in freeing farming from the curse that had blighted cereals for thousands of years.
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Fungal pathogens finally under control

On July 17 1914 Uspulun was launched as a liquid seed treatment based on Wesenberg’s discovery. Bayer’s Conference of Directors recognized the potential significance of this new product and approved an advertising budget of 4,000 Marks for Uspulun – a sizeable sum a century ago. They were proved right in their assessment of the significance of Uspulun. Although the First World War broke out only a fortnight later, Uspulun proved so successful in controlling the fungal pathogens that had ruined cereal crops that the product was exported to seven other countries during the war years. But Uspulun’s success was not merely due to its efficacy in fighting fungal infestation. In 1915 an advertising campaign for Uspulun in German farming magazines and a whole series of information campaigns, pamphlets, editorials and usage reports facilitated the widespread use of this innovative seed treatment. And by 1916 sales of Uspulun were rocketing.

The struggle against starvation

From the earliest days of the war, the Royal Navy had been blockading Continental seaports to prevent seaborne imports to Germany. This led to dramatic food shortages, which culminated in the "turnip winters" of 1916/17 and 1917/18 when some 700,000 German civilians – mostly women and children – died of starvation or related diseases. The food situation was so grim that in early 1918 the authorities in the Grand Duchy of Baden were so convinced of Uspulun’s efficacy that they ordered all farmers to use this seed treatment to improve the cereal harvest and avoid even more deaths through starvation.

Mercury not an issue

Since Uspulun contained mercury, the question naturally cropped up of whether this potentially poisonous substance could infiltrate cereal seed and ultimately end up in bread or other cereal-based foods. Consequently, numerous studies were carried out by Bayer scientists and at reputable university institutes but even the most sensitive instruments available in the 1920s could find no evidence of a risk to human health. The Uspulun success story continued unabated – in Germany and abroad.
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Export successes

In 1921 Uspulun was exported to Mexico, the first country outside Europe to use this seed treatment. In 1925 Bayer's Biological Institute developed a more convenient dry version of Uspulun seed to replace the rather fiddly liquid version, and the success story carried out. By 1928 Uspulun was being marketed in the USA with the neat claim "Larger yields from smaller fields" and the seed treatment had also met with a positive echo in Argentina. In the 1930s Uspulun was still a popular seed treatment in Asia and sales of Uspulun started in Japan in 1936.

By the outbreak of the Second World War Uspulun had been generally replaced by Ceresan, an even more effective cereal seed treatment, but its contribution to combating the ancient curse of cereal farming had been truly revolutionary. 1914 saw the dawn of a new era in cereal farming, and the start of a whole century of innovative advances in seed treatment from Bayer.