When you open a packet of seeds to get your fall garden started, you probably won’t worry much that the contents will produce the plants you paid for.
To be sure, others have done the worrying for you. That’s because a seed company that fails to deliver what the package promises might hear from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Seed Testing and Regulatory Division. They don’t want that.
Ernest Allen, the division’s new director, leads the nation’s small squad of “seed police” for the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service. The Charlotte resident and his crew have been operating in Gastonia since 2003. Before that, the office was just outside the nation’s capital, in Beltsville, Md.
Based on the size of this Agriculture Marketing Service operation – in a building roughly the size of a Walgreens pharmacy store – you might underestimate the importance of the work its 14 botanists, physiologists, plant pathologists, lab technicians and investigators do.
But seeds are a nearly $12 billion-a-year market in the United States. That value puts America at the top of a $45 billion-a-year global seed market, with China and France in second and third place, according to the International Seed Federation.
That means the U.S. held nearly 27 percent of the world’s competitive international seed trade in 2011.
“People have different wants,” said Allen, a botanist and certified seed analyst. “If businesses, and specifically American businesses, can provide those wants and specific needs of people from anywhere, American businesses will do well.”
The work that is carried out at the Gastonia office is required by the Federal Seed Act. Enacted in 1939, the law calls for accurate labeling and purity standards for seed traders or distributors.
High-quality seeds are vital for meeting the needs of individuals, as well as businesses that produce food, medicine, textiles and many other products that we use every day.
Crops can suffer if seeds are mislabeled. Problems also can mount if weed seeds find their way into the packages, or if seeds are infested with insects or diseases.
The larger the scale of planting, as with commercial operations, the bigger problems can become. Growers, for example, spend about $5 billion a year in the U.S. trying to control weeds.
“It’s an important service for all consumers of seed,” said Danny Turner, seed and fertilizer administrator for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
North Carolina is a “big seed producing state,” Turner said, especially winter wheat and soybeans. The agency’s services can be valuable for seed companies that distribute products across state lines, he said. Each state has seed laws to protect against noxious weeds and other potential hazards. The federal agency keeps tabs on those nuances in state laws.
Also, North Carolina’s lab does not do testing to determine or verify seed varieties. The federal labs can help with that.
“If a seed was labeled one variety and it looks like something else, we might rely on the federal office to provide growouts and tests,” Turner said.
The work that is carried out at the Gastonia office is required by the Federal Seed Act. Enacted in 1939, the law calls for accurate labeling and purity standards for seed traders or distributors. It also prohibits trading and importing adulterated or misbranded seeds.
Seed packages must provide details about plant varieties, their germination rates, noxious weeds and about seed purity, which would include insects and other possible contents.
Probably the worst fate a seed company can face is to show up on the list of settled Federal Seed Act cases, which describes violations and names violators. Seed buyers might shy away from those companies, and competitors might use the information to promote their own products. Most get a warning at least before showing up on the list, Allen said.
But more often violations are the result of lack of education or confusion caused by variations in seed laws among the states.
Allen says his agency can be a partner for education and training, especially for smaller companies that might have fewer resources for testing as they develop new products.
“We want to make sure that we serve as a resource to the seed industry,” he said. “We have people here with expertise in almost any segment of the seed industry.”
Karen Sullivan: 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms
Occupation: Botanist and director of the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service’s Seed Regulatory and Testing Division in Gastonia since June. For two years prior he was deputy director and laboratory supervisor.
Hometown: Greenwood, S.C.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, Winthrop University.
Family: Three children.