ANGERS, France: FCI made a visit to GEVES (Groupe d’Etude et de contrôle des Variétés Et des Semences) to find out more about the French variety, seed study and control group.
Cereals, oilseed, barley but also vegetables, salads and ornamentals; the vast majority of crops produced around the world come to life with the sowing of a seed. Seeds are life but are also of immense biological and economic importance with the USD 59.71 billion global seed market dominated by the big five: BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta (ChemChina), accounting for more than half the sales of seeds, crop protection products and fertilisers in the world.
Seeds have turned into a global commodity with seed quality touted as one of the most critical factors in the establishment of a uniform plant stand, marking the first step in producing a successful crop, particularly now that there are growing concerns about a rapidly increasing world population to feed, changing weather patterns and the spread of new crop diseases.
Reliability and performance
Naturally, seeds must undergo pre-market release testing to help ensure reliability and performance. Widely considered as the founder of seed testing is Professor Friedrich Nobbe (1830-1922), who back in 1869 established the world’s first seed testing laboratory in Tharandt, Germany. Nobbe’s ground-breaking work led to considerable market growth in the seed testing sector with more than 119 seed testing stations in 19 countries 30 years later.
In France, seed testing facility GEVES opened in 1971, established in the government’s National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), providing expertise and methodological research which is related to variety and seed testing.
It moved from Versailles to Beaucouzé (in the country’s horticultural heartland Anjou) in 2009 where communication assistant Rosie Gilonis walked us through the institute’s operating divisions: SEV, the variety testing department, SNES, the national seed testing station and BioGEVES, the molecular biology and biochemistry laboratory. GEVES has 250 employees and a pool of temporary workers for seasonal activity. The three departments within GEVES intervene at different stages of the seed sector.
GEVES youngest ‘seedling’ is a new organisation for preserving much needed crop diversity in a world dominated by giant corporations and growers increasingly turning to modern, high yielding varieties, abandoning the oldies that frequently offer a wealth of genetic information.
Gilonis says, “We contain the national coordination for the conservation of plant genetic resources, carried out on behalf of the French Ministry of Agriculture. Crop diversity is all around us. It is in the food we eat, medicines, the clothes we wear and in our gardens. The world in general is becoming more aware of the wealth of the many existing varieties and species. All this is called plant genetic resources. Through this new activity GEVES identifies stakeholders who are involved in conservation of these varieties and the aim is also to compose a national collection for plant genetic resources in France.”
Another field GEVES is working in is plant breeding, the science of producing new varieties with desired characteristics. Breeding work is done by private breeders and public bodies including INRA and universities. France alone hosts 67 plant breeding companies.
“Plant breeding is not something we carry out but is something we are aware and on top of. GEVES follows new developments in plant breeding. Once a party has produced a new variety it wants to sell it. And this is where GEVES/SEV comes in. In order to sell a variety, it needs to be registered in the official catalogue to receive marketing authorisation. In order to be registered the variety undergoes testing and this is the responsibility of GEVES,” explains Gilonis.
GEVES carries out DUS-testings and it is surprising how modern DUS testing can be traced back to questions seed pioneer professor Nobbe asked himself 150 years ago. Gilonis: “We check that new varieties are Distinct from existing varieties, that they are Uniform and that they are Stable over time.”
GEVES has additional trials called VCUS for agricultural species. “They check whether new varieties are going to provide added value. The idea behind is that agricultural varieties are the future of agriculture and need to be examined in relation to agro-policies. If, for example, a policy aims to reduce pesticides and a new variety turns out to low yield or disease prone then it will not be of much use to farmers even if it is distinct, uniform and stable,” explains Gilonis.
VCUS trials are undertaken by GEVES. While DUS tests are carried out in accordance with common agreed EU protocols, however, there is no EU protocol for VCUS testing. There are annual meetings organised between EU member states to exchange knowledge and discuss regulations, for example on 26-28 June 2019 VCUS experts from 17 European examination offices met in Gand, Belgium.
GEVES produces VCUS data, analyses it to present the results to the CTPS, the country’s technical committee for plant breeding. “This is where it gets a bit tricky,” admits Gilonis. She adds, “A group of scientific experts are in charge of examining the results of the technical tests and then granting the subsequent marketing authorisation. CTPS is also involved in developing the technical protocols behind registration because these protocols are not fixed but constantly evolving.”
The same technical testing carried out for registration in the catalogue applies to Plant Variety Rights (PVR) testing. PVR grants the title holder exclusive rights and allows them to be the only ones who can commercialise a new variety. The holder can subsequently authorise others to commercialise the variety and collect royalties from it. “PVR aims to foster innovation in plant breeding,” says Gilonis, “because if you don’t collect royalties there is no incentive to produce new varieties.”
She stresses the world craves new plant varieties. “New varieties from five years ago might not be relevant today as we might have new diseases. We need varieties that can cope with climate change. In this field, we work with INOV the French organisation for plant variety rights and CPVO, the EU organisation for PVR.”
Gilonis points to the 8,500 varieties registered in the French catalogue which boils down to 600 new varieties registered per year. The European catalogue includes 45,000 registered varieties, being the sum of all national catalogues. “That’s a clear benefit. If you register in the catalogue you also obtain marketing authorisation for the whole of the European Union.”
Once a party has obtained marketing authorisation it moves on to seed production. Seed production companies establish contracts with seed growers, seeds are planted, harvested processed and will undergo thorough testing.
In France and the rest of Europe, strict seed quality control exists with criteria for marketing seeds. Seed standards are defined by EU directives and GEVES’ national seed testing station SNES does the necessary testing to meet these criteria.
Gilonis says there are various aspects to seed variety testing. The first is to ensure that a sample has trueness to type, also referred to as variety. It is equally important to monitor the quality of the seed, particularly in respect of its germination, health and physical purity. The seed must be able to successfully establish a uniform plant stand and must be free from other materials such as dirt, plant debris or weed seeds.
For this activity, the human eye is very important. “We have not yet developed a technology that can beat the human eye for examining seeds. We have seed analysts that have been here for years and years. They know their species back to front.”
Over 70 seed analysts and support staff at SNES test over 20,000 samples each year. Tested species many include cereals, oilseed rape, pulse crops, grasses and vegetables and, to a lesser extent, ornamentals. Germination tests are carried out in Copenhagen Tank incubators and there’s a trend of using high purity seed testing paper. The papers are made from pure cellulose without any additives and do not contain any substances that could influence the growth of the seeds. The constant water absorption of the papers ensures the continuous provision of the required amount of water.
Seed testing services include physical and genetic purity testing, seed germination testing and seed health testing with over 90,000 analyses each year.
SNES is a national reference laboratory, says Gilonis. “So we carry out training for seed analysis, audits and inter-laboratory comparisons. As such we have a full role in this.”
GEVES, to conclude, also boasts a molecular biology and biochemistry laboratory, BioGEVES, to assist with its variety and seed testing activities. This department is strongly involved in methodological research. Think detecting GMOs, genotyping by protein electrophoresis and molecular markers and biochemical analysis.
GEVES hosts one of the world’s most important seed collections, stored in tubes and include 17,000 species of cultivated and adventive plants from around the world. The seeds are dry stored (and therefore no longer able to germinate) and used in seed physical purity testing of of commercial seed lots to identify seeds from different species.
Quick facts from the International Seed Federation
The global seed export market was valued at USD 11378 million in 2016. International seed trade has grown 7x since 1994, demonstrating the strong and dynamic growth of the sector in recent time. In terms of volumes, 4,435,089 metric tonnes of seed were exported in 2016. Globally speaking, France is the largest seed exporter in volumes, followed by Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Canada and Belgium. Source: International Seed Federation www.worldseed.org
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*SIVAL set for January 14th to 16th 2020.
GEVES and ornamentals
GEVES receives requests from INOV (French protection), the CPVO (EU protection system) or other EU offices for DUS testing. Candidate flower varieties are cultivated in open fields or under cover, and compared to well-known varieties in order to guarantee a precise observation of the required criteria. Ornamental and aromatic DUS at GEVES include 80 genera entrusted by the CPVO including Hydrangea, Lavendula, Buddleia, Lagerstroemia, Abelia, Hibiscus, Coreopsis, Leucanthemum, Salvia, Spiraea, Ipomoa, Forsythia, Nerium, Nicotiana. Ocimum, Osanthus, Rosmarinus, Tagetes, Thymus, Viburnum, Salvia, Photinia and Persicaria. Entrustment evaluation is in progress for natural season Chrysanthemums. Working with a dedicated team of 6 flower experts, GEVES is a major EU examination office for conducting ornamental DUS trials.