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Mystery seeds and gene editing – a closer look at 2020 from the American Seed Trade Association

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Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay

The year 2020 will stand out in history for many agribusinesses, including those who work in agriculture from the ground up.

The American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) has been around for 125 years and represents over 700 seed companies across the United States. Their work covers everything from alfalfa to soybeans and zucchini.

“We represent companies that do a lot of trade around the world,” ASTA Chair John Latham said. “A of the seeds can be moved up to six times before planting, so there is a lot of regulation. We help navigate that for companies in the United States.”

A big concern for the seed industry came forward in July when consumers reported receive random seed packages in the mail. Latham said there have been more than 20,000 reports of people who received unsolicited seed shipments, and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service obtained over 10,000 packages for testing.

“They’ve found more than 4,000 different types of seeds,” Latham said. “We think it is a brushing scheme. Companies from outside the U.S. will send seed or another product, and then they’ll try to use that information to put a favorable review on social media and sometimes sell that information to other companies.”

Latham advised anyone who may still receive seed packages in the mail to not plant them because they could carry disease or invasive species.

“It’s just a real mystery, and the American Seed Trade Association is just trying to provide information to people about what’s been happening there,” he said.

The arrival of mystery seeds dropped, but there are still some seed shipments coming out.

“Some of this comes through Amazon, and Amazon has done a good job of blocking the import of all seed, and other companies have done the same thing, so that’s slowed it down considerably,” Latham said. “Now they have to find other ways to get there.”

Beyond the mystery seed dilemma, ASTA also faced challenges because of health and travel restrictions from COVID-19. Latham said thanks to communication technology, they can still educate about innovations in the industry. A big topic this year is gene editing.

“Gene editing is something that we’ve been working with the USDA on,” Latham said. “It is kind of the next frontier. With genetic editing, we can do what we do with conventional breeding, but we can do it so much faster. We want to make sure that new companies can work with gene-edited products and not be overly burdened by regulation.”

Much of that work includes conversations with the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA, as well as members of congress to have what Latham calls common sense, consistent policy regarding gene editing and innovation. He explained gene editing offers the chance to bring new products and solve problems farmers face today.

“We just want to educate people and make them understand, especially our regulators, what is going on and how there are a lot of benefits to what is going on with gene editing,” he said.

In addition to talking with regulators, Latham challenged farmers to share the value of advancements in agriculture with everyday consumers.

“Let’s all take a roll in agriculture to talk to our friends that live in urban areas and are maybe getting misinformation about what is happening and the benefits to the environment and benefits to our production in the future,” he said. “There’s a lot of great things that come from it, but sometimes we’ve got the other side that could misconstrue things. It is important for all of us to talk about the great things not only in the seed business but agriculture in general.”

One positive attribute of 2020 was the passage of the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada (USMCA) which went into effect July 1.

“We think these types of agreements will be the kind of way moving forward in future agreements whether it be Asia or around the world,” he said. “We’re really happy with USMCA and hopeful it will have a bright future for trade for the U.S., which is good for all farmers.”

He noted with a new administration likely entering office in January, the ASTA will have to work to develop new relationships there within the administration and USDA, as well as the new faces on Capitol Hill.

Kaitlyn Riley’s passion for communications started on her family’s dairy farm in Gays Mills, Wis. Wanting to share agriculture’s story, she studied strategic communications and broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college, she held officer positions with the Association of Women in Agriculture and Badger Dairy Club while volunteering as a news reporter for the college radio station. She also founded the university’s first agricultural radio talk show, AgChat. In her professional career, Kaitlyn has worked in radio, print and television news doing everything from covering local events to interviewing presidential candidates, and putting back on her barn boots to chat with farmers in the field. Today, Kaitlyn can be seen covering local stories that matter to you in the La Crosse area.