The global food industry has gone through many changes in the last few millennia; from the first recorded domestication of rice in China around 6200BC. Not only have the farming methods changed, but the seeds themselves have evolved over time to increase yield and, through the use of hybridization and Genetic Modification, become more resistant to natural pests and diseases.
Today’s agricultural industry is highly matured but still very innovative at all stages of its production process. This is the first in a series of articles that look into such innovations, starting from seed selection through to irrigation, crop management, harvesting and storage.
The goal for sustainable agriculture is to ‘do more with less’ which, as the phrase suggests, means maximizing quality produce while using minimum amounts of raw materials including fertilizer, land area, and water. But before we begin let’s have a look at what is defined as a quality produce.
A uniform quality produce is essential for farmers to negotiate a good price for their goods (P2)
Defining "Good Produce"
Industrial agriculture produce is subject to both consumer preferences and market forces. Therefore, farmers need to keep in mind not just the quality of their produce but the supply of the total amount of produce and substitute produce available in the market, or risk being subject to high fluctuations in price.
To satisfy consumer preferences which are by definition both subjective and qualitative, the ‘Brix Value’ is used. This metric is defined as the level of soluble solids in a fruit or vegetable. And it is a quantitative rating of a produce that can be used for both comparison and standardization. It is used as an indicator of the sugars present in a fruit and is one of the factors that determine if a crop is suitable for the market. Brix values can be easily and reliably measured using a refractometer, a relatively inexpensive instrument. However, this value cannot be used in isolation and so the weight, color and shape, as well as other preferences (such as aroma and flavor) of the produce, must also be considered.
For farmers looking to receive a good price for their produce it is essential that each fruit or vegetable possess the same or similar physical and biological attributes. And so farmers have the challenge of producing crops of uniform quality, flavor, and nutrition. The quality the seeds themselves are the biggest indicator of crop quality and consistency. Depending on the crop, around 50% of the increase in agricultural yields over the last century were achieved as a result of improved genetics (seeds and planting materials).
Given the above, let us first discuss seed options available in the global agricultural market.
A seed harvester significantly improves the efficiency of extracting the seeds from the fruit (P3)
Seeds Available in the Market
Open Pollinated Seeds (OP)
The most fundamental theory in the whole of biology is evolution by natural selection which dictates a competition of the fittest. Weak varieties disappear due to disease and environmental pressures, and the strong ones reproduce their advantageous genes into the next generations. These are sometimes called “wild” varieties, and are not necessarily designed to be the most flavorful but are highly resistant to the environment they are grown in.
Since the beginning of the agriculture, farmers have been saving seeds of varieties which are of better yields, taste, and ease of cultivation which has resulted in us having many of these OP seeds. These seeds are more genetically diverse than other types, as there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individual plants. And they rely on natural pollination methods such as; insects, birds, and wind forces.
This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing and climatic conditions year-on-year. Maintaining a pure-line is extremely important in protecting OP varieties. A process called in-breeding is done to make sure that genes do not mix between different varieties. And as long as pollen is not shared between different (in-bred) varieties within the same species, the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year.
Hybrid Seeds (F1)
Hybridization is the process of mixing two unrelated in-bred (OP) varieties for the production of a better next generation. These seeds employ a method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention. Hybridization can also occur naturally through random crosses (as happens with open pollinated seeds), but commercially available hybridized seeds, often labeled ‘F1’, are deliberately bred to have desired traits such as disease resistance, higher yields, higher quality of produce, shorter grow cycles and a better response to fertilizers.
They are generally more resistant to pests and diseases, especially viruses, but these F1 plants are genetically unstable and cannot be saved for future use as subsequent generations will not be true-to-type and much less vigorous. Which means that farmers who use hybrid plant varieties must purchase new seeds every year.
Native Heirloom Seeds
Heirloom vegetables are old-time, open-pollinated varieties, saved and handed down through multiple generations of farming families and communities. Such seeds offer the advantages of being particularly resilient in the environments they were raised in, and our sometimes in niche demand, but are not as disease or bug resistant as hybrid seeds.
GMO /Gene transferring technology
Under the Food Act of Sri Lanka, it is a criminal offence to import, store or distribute any GMO crop and any related material in Sri Lanka. Therefore, GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds are not legally planted in Sri Lanka due to the perceived ecological and health risks they pose. Some GMO seed varieties are created in a lab using sophisticated techniques like gene-splicing, but we will not get into these details now as they are not relevant to Sri Lanka.
After extraction seeds need to be dried completely in order to prevent them from germinating when stored for a long period of time (P3)
Testing of seeds and certification of their quality or suitability are generally carried out by a licensed testing body, and one of the main global bodies for seed testing and certification is the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA). These certifications make it possible for buyers to ensure the quality of the seed through metrics such as the; Germination Rate, Purity, Viability, Moisture content, Seed Count, Inert matter %, Abnormal seeds %, and Dead seeds %. Such standardized conformity provides a guarantee to farmers about the quality of their next harvest, ensuring a good return.
Farmers need to adopt more efficient technologies like the above drip irrigation system to maximize their yields and reduce their risks and labour dependency (P4)
Although Sri Lanka has a rich and ancient history of agriculture, our contemporary harvesting methods fall short of global standards. And with the genetics of pests and diseases continuously evolving through generations, plants genetics also need to evolve to resist them. This makes the process of breeding new varieties of seeds a continuous one that needs to be carried out. Selecting the correct seeds is the most important decision farmers make in their farming cycle. If they get select a crop unsuitable for their unique farm conditions, the positive impact they can make with the rest of the cultivation process will be significantly restricted.
After choosing the correct seed type for the growing environment, the best growing practices and technologies must be employed. Education about modern cultivation technology and practices is key for farmers to improve their cultivation methods and reduce their dependence on fertilizer to ensure successful harvest. Check out our articles on the latest irrigation systems here.
It is also essential that broader scale planning and crop management occurs within the country to raise awareness amongst farmers about the varying market demands for crops throughout the year, allowing them to better determine the right crops to grow for maximum profitability.