What if you could look at a bag of corn, soybean or wheat seed and know the nutrients each kernel of seed contained--before you purchased any of those hybrids and varieties for your farm?
If this sounds like a pipe dream, it’s not. Scientists are already figuring out how seed nutrient levels affect crop productivity. Ismail Cakmak, for one, says seed-contained macro- and micro-nutrients are key factors affecting seed germination, seedling emergence, uniformity of emergence and plant yield.
"Today, everybody analyzes soil samples and plant-leaf tissue to see the impact of soil fertilization, but no one pays attention to the seed nutrient profile and they need to," says Cakmak, professor of biological sciences and bioengineering at Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey. "When seeds with low nutrient density are sown, the ability of the new crop to withstand environmental stress factors in the early growth stages is often impaired."
Cakmak was the keynote speaker for the inaugural Exceed the Seed Symposium, hosted by AgriThority, this week in Chicago. Cakmak spoke on the topic of "Valued Nutrition Starts with the Seed" and provided a number of examples that demonstrate the importance of seed nutrients on crop outcomes.
For instance, Cakmak’s research shows that:
- Soybean seeds with a low concentration of boron tend to have permanently damaged seed embryos, which can prevent germination or produce defective seedlings.
- The availability of phosphorus very early in a wheat plant’s development is more critical to helping farmers achieve good crop yields than the supply of phosphorus at later growth stages. This highlights the importance of seed phosphorus reserves.
Cakmak adds that adverse effects resulting from the lack of adequate seed-based nutrients cannot always be reversed with soil-applied nutrients, especially micronutrients.
Improved food quality. Some seed industry members attending the Exceed the Seed symposium see an immediate opportunity to put Cakmak’s research to work.
"We’re overlooking a lot of things in plant physiology that could better our seed production work and result in higher-quality plants," says Mike Haedt, a partner in the Wisconsin-based Partners in Production. The company markets corn, soybeans, alfalfa, cover crops and products for enhancing forages.
"This is a whole new way to think about growing food," Haedt adds.
That latter point, the potential for producing plants containing more and better nutrients for human health, is what drives much of Cakmak’s enthusiasm for seed research, some of which has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He says zinc deficiency alone is responsible for 500,000 child deaths worldwide each year.
Eventually, Cakmak expects the concept of seed fertilization for improved seed nutrient content to be developed by the agricultural industry and used by farmers, much like soil and foliar fertilization practices are used today.
Haedt says while seed nutrient values are not currently available on any production seed-bag labels, he expects that could change.
"This information isn’t on any seed bag because it’s not standardized, and companies put only the information on seed tags that they’re required to," he says, adding, "If this information becomes a valuable plus to help companies sell their products (seed), you’ll probably begin to see more of it used."