INSIDERS Why Seed Testing Standards are Key to Global Food Security

Why Seed Testing Standards are Key to Global Food Security


Sarah Foster
Sarah Foster
President and Senior Seed Analyst, 20/20 Seed Labs - Sarah Foster is a registered seed technologist, senior seed analyst and president of 20/20 Seed Labs — a company she started in 1989 that provides testing services for all crop kinds, including extensive quality and seed health analysis, molecular testing and accredited crop inspection. Involved in the seed industry since the late 1970s, Foster studied and qualified as an accredited seed analyst at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge, England. Her work experience includes seven years with Sharps Seed International (Advanta) in the United Kingdom, and five years with the United Grain Growers in Edmonton after immigrating to Canada in 1984.

I remember when there was no provision for standardized methods for seed vigour. It took a lot of foresight and hard work with our international partner, the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA), to convince our government agencies and seedsmen to adopt vigour testing into the rules.

Seed testing professionals made it clear that farmers needed a standardized vigour test, and that was the beginning of vigour becoming a standard procedure. It was a momentous day when the vote for vigour was brought into the rules in South Africa in 1997.

We were the first seed lab in Canada to be accredited. The ISTA laboratory accreditation standard provides a mechanism to accredit and audit seed testing laboratories. The ISTA Proficiency Test program is mandatory for ISTA-accredited laboratories and provides an independent measure of a laboratory’s ability to achieve uniform and consistent results.

To become ISTA-accredited takes a commitment to a quality process that has been researched and documented. Today it is much easier to begin the process as non-government laboratories can apply for accreditation. Member but non-accredited laboratories can participate free as volunteers to gain experience and measure their performance relative to other accredited labs before they formally begin the accreditation process.

Founded in 1924 with the aim to develop and publish standard procedures in the field of seed testing, ISTA is inextricably linked with the history of global seed testing. With member laboratories in over 70 countries/distinct economies worldwide, ISTA membership is truly a global network.

ISTA members, of which I’m one, work together to achieve their vision of uniformity in seed quality evaluation worldwide. ISTA produces internationally agreed-upon rules for seed sampling and testing, accredits laboratories, promotes research, provides international seed analysis certificates and training, and disseminates knowledge in seed science and technology. This facilitates seed trading nationally and internationally, and also contributes to food security.

Using standard methods is the key to giving our clients more confidence about the results they’re getting. I believe ISTA will become important worldwide as time goes on, as they accredit more labs and bring everyone onside in conducting standardized testing that adheres to specific guidelines.

Because I’m an auditor for ISTA, I see more and more developing countries getting involved in ISTA. As the world population grows and technology advances, we are truly becoming a global village with a broader scientific community that enables us to draw on a wider knowledge and that means the more reliable seed testing labs are, the better. Every country has seed standards, but not all rely heavily on the ISTA methods to carry that out.

In my next column, I’ll give you some insight into how an ISTA-accredited lab differs from a non-accredited lab by giving you a “virtual tour” of our main lab and the difference ISTA accreditation makes.