Healthy seeds for healthy food
Global population growth - predicted to hit nine billion by 2050 - could have serious consequences for farming and agriculture. Currently about 15 % of the global population is hungry, lives in poverty and is dangerously dependent on agriculture. One potential solution for feeding the world, which has been on the agenda for the last 30 years, has been genetically modified seeds, an issue that continues to divide opinion. Treating seeds chemically to get rid of pest infestation also remains controversial. Now, researchers have developed an innovative method to kill pathogens without genetically modifying the seed or harming the environment.
Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP in Dresden, Germany have developed an environmentally friendly method for removing germs from seeds. They treat the seeds with electrons, which within milliseconds destroy the DNA of the harmful organisms. Due to a special device setup, the elementary particles only act on the surface and seed coat. The embryo in the interior of the seed is not affected, so that the ability of seeds to germinate is not impaired.
Seeds are home to moulds and fungi, bacteria and viruses. To kill them off and to thereby prevent plant diseases from spreading, the seeds are, as a rule, treated chemically. In recent years however, this method has been discredited. Permits for certain chemical treating agents have been withdrawn, and the granting of new permits has declined markedly. In addition, a severe case of E-coli infection caused by bean sprout seeds and which made headlines in summer 2011 also resulted in calls for alternatives.
"In cereal seed you will find almost exclusively fungal pathogens," says Frank-Holm Rögner, department head at the FEP. "Due to climate change however, cereal seed has been increasingly affected by bacteria from the south, against which there are no chemical agents as yet. Our treatment with low-energy accelerated electrons on the other hand is effective against bacterial and fungal pathogens. Also, the pathogens cannot build up a resistance against this process." Since the team do not use any chemical additives, they are able to destroy the pathogens in an environmentally friendly fashion. Any leftover seed can be used as feed without any concerns.
Experts have long been able to prove that the germination ability of seeds treated in this manner is equal to that of chemically treated seeds, and for two decades, scientists have been attempting to further develop the method. In 2002, a mobile demonstration unit was built to provide test treatments all across Germany. However, even though the EPPO (European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation) recommended the process for conventional as well as for ecological farming, the technology has been unable to achieve market penetration and has not progressed beyond demonstration status. According to Rögner, one of the reasons for the lack of economic success amongst farmers has been the reluctance of farmers to change seed supplier and habit.
In order to bypass this reluctance, researchers decided to work with a company called Nordkorn Saaten GmbH. In 2010, Nordkorn was able to test the process for the first time using a mobile demonstrator - a truck on which the unit is mounted - directly on site at their headquarters in Güstrow, Germany. The seed producers were impressed by the prototype, which ran for hundreds of hours with a throughput of up to 30 tonnes per hour. Since then, Nordkorn has bought the pilot plant, together with the long-standing seed partner company of the Institute, BayWa AG, and has commissioned the Institute with the building of a second, custom-fit unit. This unique system will start operations in Güstrow in late June 2013. Together with BayWa and Nordkorn as well as a plant manufacturer, further development of the unit has also been planned. It is expected that over time, the technology will become more affordable and more compact.
Scientists are confident that this new treatment will prove to be successful and help farmers demonstrate that they are trying to reduce their CO2 footprint and lower the use of chemical pesticides. "With our unit, we are able to contribute significantly to this," says Rögner. Should the treatment with electrons gain greater acceptance, the FEP could license their process to plant construction companies.
Finally, researchers at the FEP are promoting their activities abroad. The Institute is endeavouring to introduce the electron treatment process into the Chinese and Indian markets. "Due to the large amounts of seed produced, we see good opportunities there," says Rögner.
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Fraunhofer Institute for Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP
Data Source Provider: Fraunhofer Institute for Electron Beam and Plasma Technology
Document Reference: Based on information from Fraunhofer Institute
Subject Index: Agricultural biotechnology ; Agriculture; Food