Across Muir √Čireann

In a country that is export-focussed, values its agriculture and is expanding for the future, the Irish seed industry is thriving.

As we start the second decade of the 21stcentury, the opportunities for agriculture have never been greater. In order to continue our current population growth curve, mankind will have to produce more food, fibre and fuel using fewer inputs and with less impact on the natural environment.

Luckily for us in the seed industry, our skills, experience and resources give us an edge in mankind’s quest will achieve this ‘utopia’.

Ireland sits on the northwest tip of Europe and is known for its unspoiled scenery, mild climate and friendly people. Agriculture is important to the Irish economy (8% of GNP) and we feed 50 million people every year with our food exports. There are 4.5 million ha of agricultural land in Ireland, of which 370,000 ha is arable and the remaining is grassland. However, in times past, there were greater than 1 million ha of arable land which could be rapidly converted into arable crops again, if the opportunity presents itself.

The main arable crops grown in Ireland are barley (200,000 ha), wheat (80,000 ha), oats (20,000 ha), fodder beet (10,000 ha), maize silage (16,000 ha), potatoes (9,000ha), oilseed rape (8,000 ha), faba beans (7,000 ha) and the balance in vegetables/fruit. Most of the arable crops are used for animal feed but we still import over three million tonnes of animal feed each year, mainly grain maize and maize by-products, soya meal and citrus by-products.

Ireland’s renowned adult beverage industry — with famous brands such as Guinness beer and Jameson whiskey — uses about 15% of our national barley crop, and this is forecast to rise in the next decade. The demand for animal feed is also predicted to increase. There is almost no commercial flour milling industry in Ireland.

Plant Breeders Rights

In Ireland, Plant Breeders’ Rights are registered by the office of the Controller of Plant Breeders’ Rights, a corporate body, which is staffed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM). The Controller’s role is in the establishment of the Right. Irish Plant Breeders’ Rights and EU Plant Breeder Rights are valid in Ireland. Fees are payable to the Office of the Controller for the services provided, and renewal fees are payable each year to maintain Rights. Ireland is a member of UPOV.

Seedtech Trial Site Prior to Harvest

Industry Bodies

At the beginning of Ireland’s food production chain is the seed industry, which is represented by two bodies: Plant Variety Development Office (PVDO) and Irish Seed Trade Association (ISTA).

PVDO (www.pvdo.ie) is mandated under Irish law (Statutory Instrument No. 273/2007) to administer the collection of royalties on certified seed (CS) and farm saved seed (FSS) in Ireland. PVDO is also involved in promotion of genetic traits and the protection of breeder’s intellectual property rights in Ireland. It has an office with experienced staff who conduct desktop and farm inspections of CS and FSS declarations and meet regularly with DAFM officials on seed business.

The collection of CS (and by extension, FSS) royalties is reliant on accurate statistics which are provided to PVDO by DAFM officials and as such are extremely reliable. FSS is relatively small in Ireland, comprised of approximately 10% of the arable area mainly in winter barley and winter wheat. Growers availing of FSS are legally obliged to declare the tonnages to PVDO. Royalties are then passed onto breeders by PVDO.

ISTA (www.irishseedtrade.ie) is a trade association which was founded in 1914 and represents the 16 companies that are involved in seed multiplication, distribution and sale of certified cereal seed in Ireland (and is not to be confused with the other ISTA, the International Seed Testing Association). Royalties are collected by ISTA members at the point of sale of CS. ISTA members make twice annual returns to PVDO and these statistics are verified and signed by DAFM officials who visit ISTA members premises regularly, checking on seed production and sales statistics.

ISTA’s main role is representing its members interests with policymakers, seed users and the general public. When major changes occur such as Brexit, CAP reform or market demands/challenges, ISTA will meet the relevant bodies to represent its members interests. In the past, ISTA has been successful in securing a coupled Protein Crop payment for Ireland, which doubled the area of beans grown in Ireland.

Beans awaiting Bagging

Beans awaiting bagging

Plant Breeding in Ireland

Plant breeding of cereal crops began in Ireland in 1905 under state ownership and was primarily concerned with malting barley and oat breeding but also had some noticeable local success in spring milling wheat and faba beans. However, when Ireland joined the EU (at the time, the EEC) in 1973, international plant breeders could collect royalties and became increasingly interested in the Irish market.

This marked the beginning of the end of cereal plant breeding in Ireland as the resources required were too great to compete with larger international breeders. Cereal plant breeding stopped in 1996. Government-owned plant breeding programs in grass, clover and potatoes (www.teagasc.ie) continue today. Successful varieties such as Glenveagh perennial ryegrass, Arann clover and Rooster potatoes have been bred from these programs. All the major international plant breeders are represented in Ireland by agents who avail of the services of PVDO.

Variety Listing

Due to the lack of native cereal breeding in Ireland, breeder agents conduct private screening trials of all the material sent to them by their international breeders. Once a variety has shown promise, this is proposed by the breeder’s agent for entry into official trials. DAFM is the government department responsible for independently testing new varieties for Value for Cultivation and Use (VCU) and listing on the Irish National List and subsequently on the Recommended Lists. Varieties are tested for a minimum of two years on DAFM research farms and on specially selected commercial farms before DAFM will put the variety on its national list and for a further year before it is placed on the Irish recommended list. Growers primarily only grow varieties recommended by DAFM due to the challenges of the Irish climate.

Around 40,000 tonnes of certified cereal seed are sold in Ireland each year and this has been relatively static for the past decade. The wholesale value of this seed is about €18 million. DAFM is the certifying authority for Seed Certification in Ireland under EU law. Unlike other EU Member States, seed certification is not carried out by third parties under official supervision in Ireland. All certification of seed is carried out by DAFM. The scheme covers seed production and marketing for the main agricultural crops. Crop species include fodder plants, cereals, beet, potatoes, vegetables and oil and fibre plants.

Around 40,000 tonnes of certified cereal seed are sold in Ireland each year and this has been relatively static for the past decade. The wholesale value of this seed is about €18 million.

 

The scheme is partly funded through the collection of fees charged to seed assemblers and growers for services provided by the DAFM. In the case of combinable crops, seed crops must be grown under a written contract which is drawn up between the seed processor and the grower. Each seed crop is inspected by DAFM inspectors to confirm the identity of the variety, to ensure that it meets the minimum level of varietal purity and that it meets certain plant health and pest infection standards. Extra voluntary standards are adhered to by ISTA members such as a zero tolerance for black grass and wild oats during the seed field inspections.

ISTA members multiply and market registered varieties as part of the DAFM seed certification scheme as C1 (blue label) seed. Small quantities of C2 (red label) seed are imported periodically but are viewed as inferior by Irish growers. Issues such as grass weeds are often cited as the biggest reason for grower apathy toward imported C2 seed.

Trained DAFM staff inspect each seed crop in the field, take samples for testing and conducting the tests in the official DAFM Seed Testing Laboratory. This is an added marketing advantage for ISTA-produced certified seed as it is seen as unbiased certification and free from commercial interests.

Irish Climate and Crop Production

The Irish seed market is distinct because of our unique climate and thus many of the varieties sold here are exclusive to Ireland. According to FAO statistics 2017 (www.fao.org/faostat/), Ireland has the highest yields in the world of wheat (10.2 t/ha), oats (8.4 t/ha), the second-highest yields of barley (8.3 t/ha) and fourth-highest yields of oilseed rape (4.1 t/ha). To anyone (un)lucky enough to have spent a typical summer in Ireland, the obvious reason for these high yields falls from the sky — rain!

However, there is another reason, known to crop physiologists, for these high yields — our cool summer temperatures slows down grain fill and allows the crop genetics to fully express themselves. The corollary of these high yields is the need for excellent straw/stem stiffness and international plant breeders know too well the consequences of having poor straw in an Irish variety trial. I often say to our international seed partners that Ireland is the ‘largest laboratory’ for wet weather plant disease experiments in the world, and I note how important it is for successful Irish varieties to have robust disease genetics.

At Seedtech, we have converted this ‘disadvantage’ to an advantage and are involved with plant breeders and crop protection multinationals for early generation disease nurseries and for fungicide development experimentation. Ireland’s cool summers are not conducive to insect population explosions, thus Irish growers do not know significant crop loss from such pests as flea beetles in oilseed rape, feeding aphids/midges in wheat or Bruchid beetle in faba beans.

 

Being an island nation, plant phytosanitary rules are rigorously enforced by DAFM, which helps secure our seed industry.

Being an island nation, plant phytosanitary rules are rigorously enforced by DAFM, which helps secure our seed industry. Pernicious grass weeds such as blackgrass (Alopecurus myosuroides) are extremely uncommon in Ireland and the use of rotational grassland is used with great effect to ensure clean land for high grade seed multiplication.

Future Trends

The overwhelming trend in agriculture is sustainability. Whether it’s banning pesticides, coating nitrogenous fertilisers or developing plant-based meat substitutes, all these trends are converging towards a common end position — the world needs to produce more from less and the seed industry will be the key agricultural input industry of the future. Getting more from less is what the seed industry has been doing well since the first farmers gathered seeds along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers some 8,000 years ago.

For the seed industry to deliver sustainable crop varieties, plant breeders need all the tools available to react to market demands significantly quicker than in the past. However, the biggest opportunity is also our biggest constraint in that the public perception of modern breeding techniques may prohibit their use, especially within the EU.

Pesticides

The public’s perception of pesticides is clearly influencing the whole regulatory environment: slowing down the rate of new actives being registered and hastening to revocation of old actives. A good example of this is the banning of neonicotinoids. In Ireland, the main use of neonicotinoids was for preventing aphid transfer of BYDV in winter cereals. Neonicotinoid technology facilitated opportune drilling of winter cereals thus increasing yields, profits and reducing inefficiencies of inputs.

Banning them has only had deleterious consequences. Winter crop drilling in 2019 is only 50% of average as growers delayed drilling to avoid BYDV and the weather did the rest. Plant breeding can offer solutions in this regard. Novel genetics which allow the plant to yield despite BYDV infection are ready to be commercialised in Ireland and these genetics will require a competent seed industry to be fully exploited.

Plant-Based Protein

The trend towards plant-based meat and milk alternatives is rapidly transitioning from obscure to mainstream. Oat “milk” is winning barista competitions on the West Coast of America and is something we can easily produce in Ireland. However, the quantities required will not equal the feed used to supplement dairy cows even in a grass-fed system like Ireland, so that is a double-edged sword for the seed industry. However, I do see opportunities for expansion of protein crops such as faba beans and soya. The EU is committing funds to this goal and I am a participant of an EU-funded project looking to facilitate the growing of more protein crops in the EU called Legumes Translated (www.legumestranslated.eu).

Trial site Seedtech

Brexit

At present, we await confirmation of Brexit but at the time of printing, we expect it to happen on Jan. 31, 2020. Ireland is unique in that we will have the only EU/UK land border after Brexit and that border (500km long) has more ‘official’ crossing points (208) than the entire EU with its eastern neighbours (137). Due to historical ties and geographical proximity, Ireland and the UK are intrinsically linked, and a hard Brexit would impact on Ireland more than any other EU country, especially for agriculture and agribusiness. Under the transition arrangement, it is business as usual for the seed trade and we hope that arrangement continues after Brexit is finally done.

Under the transition arrangement, it is business as usual for the seed trade and we hope that arrangement continues after Brexit is finally done.

Hybridisation

As the seed industry worldwide moves towards more hybridisation in oilseed rape, barley and wheat, climates like Ireland with low diurnal temperature fluxes offer excellent opportunities for seed production. This also helps rogueing off-types and my own company, Seedtech, has successfully produced winter and spring hybrid rape and hybrid barley for export for over 20 years.

Expanding Opportunities

The Irish seed industry is well structured and is fit for purpose to protect the intellectual property of international breeders and seed-applied technology companies and return a worthwhile return on investment. We operate in a country that is export-focussed, values its agriculture and is expanding for the future.

While this is positive, some significant challenges lie ahead such as satisfying more stringent environmental regulations and negotiating political events such as Brexit. There are some obvious and less well-known benefits for international seed companies to partner with Irish seed industry companies and I hope this article might expand these opportunities.

Tim O’Donovan is Technical Director, Seedtech

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