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Are seed treatments worth the investment?

Crop seed treatment is the fastest growing agricultural chemicals sector today, mainly due to the high cost of GM seed. But is it worth it to farmers?Two decades ago, the first neonicotinoid class of insecticide was registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and that changed the seed industry.

Brad Haire

January 9, 2014

6 Min Read
<p>SEED TREATMENTS are used for most major crops grown in the United States and a recent CropLife Foundation study examines how much benefit the technology brings to farms.</p>

The sale of seed treatments has tripled in the last decade. Why? It makes economic sense for the farmers who use them, says Jay Vroom, CropLife Foundation president and CEO.

Vroom and CropLife Foundation had a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington in December to tout the group’s study “The Role of Seed Treatment in Modern U.S. Crop Production.” On rice to cotton to corn to peanuts, seed treatments now play a major role in the economic sustainability of U.S. farmers, the study illustrates.

Precision agriculture, Vroom says, is often thought of as a machine driven by GPS controls communicating with satellites laying down precise sprays and applications with minimum overlap “but actually the technologies of seed treatments also provide a significant amount of precision increase and obviously reduce soil erosion by up to 99 percent compared to surface application of certain crop protection products, with applied rates of only ten to 40 grams of active ingredient per acre compared to a pound of a granular pesticide treatments going from ounces per hundred-weight of seed to milligrams per seed,” Vroom said.

For definition purposes, “seed treatment” refers to the direct application of crop protection products to the surface of a seed prior to planting. And that practice has come a long way in the last decade and will continue to develop in the near future, said Andy LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association.

“We have new coating methods that will encapsulate the seed better to ensure you don’t have unnecessary dust off. You look at the ability to include micronutrients as the plant is growing its roots system it is also able to be fed through the coating around the seed.

“Certain microbial products that are now being put on the seeds that are more beneficial in the soil to enhance that growth,” LaVigne said.

“There are a lot of things we’ll continue to see going forward that enable America’s farmers to ensure they’ll get a good stand and look at that almost as a 100 percent growth of every seed that’s planted across the field.”

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Tim Burrack, an Iowa farmer and vice-chair of the board of directors of the Truth About Trade & Technology, was at the conference. He’s farmed corn and soybeans for more than four decades.

“I can plant earlier, cold or wet soils, and I’m protected. I get higher yields and by planting earlier in the spring I have drier corn in the fall. … I don’t have to broadcast pesticides anymore. Seed treatments have changed my management practices,” Burrack said.

There’s going to be new methods of seed treatments coming. So, how will farmers adopt it?

“I said No. 1, it’s got to be plantable. If that seed is sticky or something, it messes us up and then it is not adoptable. We’re looking for that picket-fence stand. One plant out of a thousand that doesn’t come up is eight-tenths of a bushel per acre. …

“We adopt if it is economically friendly for us and friendly for the environment. Farmers love to adopt a technology. At $7 corn (seed treatment) is sustainable but at $4 corn it may not be sustainable.”

Two decades ago, the first neonicotinoid class of insecticide (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) was registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and that changed the seed industry, the study states.

After seeds germinate, plant roots rapidly take up the neonicotinoid and transport them to the cotyledons, young shoots and leaves. The systemic movement, along with a long residual activity in the plant, makes the chemistry ideal for a seed treatment.

Neonicotinoid insecticides changed the game

Neonicotinoid insecticides control early season pests during seedling emergence and during the vulnerable, early growth stages of plant development, leading to earlier and faster planting and more uniform crop stands with higher plant populations and less insect damage.

Prior to the commercialization of these neonicotinoids, most insecticide products didn’t last long enough to provide effective control.

In recent years, the neonicotinoid insecticide has come under fire, particularly being blamed for bee colony collapse syndrome. In December, the European Union set a two-year ban on the insecticide’s use by EU farmers.

Vroom said the CropLife report was not in response to this most recent ban by the EU. It was a coincidental occurrence that the report came out the same week the EU made the announcement.

“However, I would observe that the EU is announcing something unusual almost every week. So, it really doesn’t matter what week we would have chosen. So, no, we are not reacting or responding to the European Union’s regulator decisions,” Vroom said.

“We are in constant dialogue with our colleagues at the European Union Crop Protection Association and have been pleased that the U.S. government has also participated in the dialogue about the regulatory science that underpins decisions … and we’ve talked to a lot of European farmers who are very worried about the loss of this technology for their planting beginning 2014 and the impacts on productivity that are almost certain to be very negative for European agriculture.”

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There is a big difference between the U.S. and the EU on risk assessments, he said. Maybe the EU will change their mind on this technology one day.

Stewardship with seed treatment technology must continue, Vroom said, rotating different modes of action not only to protect the environment but to protect the benefits of the technology and prevent resistance to it as long as possible.

“On the issue of resistance on the farm, because we love these technologies and recognize the benefits, not only is it my benefit but when I benefit everyone benefits. … We constantly now are paying attention to best management practices.

“So whether it is insect resistance or whatever it is the educational efforts to use as producers and we do care. And because we want to keep technology means we are doing the things necessary through rotations, whether it is herbicides for weeds, crop rotation to work against resistance build up,” Burrack said.

Seed treatment is the fastest growing agricultural chemicals sector, Vroom said, mainly due to the high cost of GM seed used today.

According to the study, stacked trait cotton seed (220,000 to 250,000 seeds) typically carries a technology cost of between $300 and $400 per bag. A big investment and growers have to think hard on how best to protect it.

Here are some seed treatment industry economic highlights from the study:

  • Seed treatment products, applied to nearly every acre of corn planted in the U.S. in 2011, helped support nearly $80 billion worth of crop value to American farmers.

  • The global seed treatment market was valued at $2.43 billion in 2011. Insecticides accounted for 52 percent of the total market revenue, followed by fungicides, which accounted for 35 percent of revenue.

  • The global fungicide seed treatment market is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 9.2 percent and is expected to reach $1.4 billion by 2018.

  • The global insecticide seed treatment market is projected to reach $4.2 billion by 2018, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 10.8 percent.

A little history on seed treatments: The earliest reported use of a seed treatment dates back to 60 A.D., when wine and crushed cypress leaves were used to protect seed from storage insects. The active component in this mixture was likely hydrogen cyanide.

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