This past spring I stopped in a local farm supply store to buy more Peaches N’ Cream corn seed for Grow Appalachia families.  As I scanned the shelves for the seed I was looking for, I soon realized that all of the sweet corn seed was bright pink! This startled me, and it took me a minute to figure out why the seed was dyed.

I had forgotten that many seeds are treated with fungicide to help fight disease and increase yield. As a child, my parents conventionally raised corn and soy beans, and I can remember being drawn to the hot pink corn seed. Pink was my favorite color, you see. My parents, however, always kept us kids away from the seed and warned us that it would hurt us if we touched it. Since my parents switched to organic practices when I was pretty young and I have been buying almost all of our Grow Appalachia seed from companies that specialize in open-pollinated, untreated, heirloom seed I had completely forgotten about treated seed.

Warning label on bag of donated seed that I received
After my brief encounter with pink sweet corn seed at the store, I promptly forgot about treated seed again, until some seed was donated to the Pine Mountain Grow Appalachia project from a local mission organization. When I excitedly responded to their offer of free seed with a “Yes” it never occurred to me that the donation would arrive as pink seeds in bags adorned with the skull and cross bones. This thoughtful donation brought up a dilemma for me: should I give out these seeds?  It was absolutely wonderful to receive free seed, but I felt uncomfortable giving families something with a poison label. On the other hand, it felt wrong to throw away a generous donation that would produce food. Should I portray Grow Appalachia as a project that gives out treated seed?

How to know if you seed is treated:

  • You can recognize chemically treated seed because, by law, the seed must be dyed
  • The kinds of seed that are normally treated with one or more pesticides are corn, peanuts, cotton, sorghum, wheat, oats, rye, barley, millet, soybeans and most vegetable seed
So why are seeds treated in the first place? Seeds may be treated with fungicide to prevent seed problems such as:
  • Seeds rotting before they germinate
  •  The rotting on seedling stems near the ground and water soaking on seedling tissue (damping-off and seedling blight)
  • Seedling wilt (gray coloration starting at the leaf tips and extending rapidly to the whole leaf, causing complete collapse of seedlings in 24 to 28 hours).
  • Rotting of seedling roots
Alternatively, some seeds may be treated with insecticides to keep beetles and moths from feeding on seeds.
Additional reasons why farmers use treated seed:
  • Treating seed has the potential to lower the environmental impact of conventional farming since pesticide treatments are applied directly to the seed, and the chemicals do not drift over a field.
  • Seeds and seedlings are generally more vulnerable to diseases and insects than mature plants. Applying treatments to seeds allows pesticides to be present when needed most.
  • Seed treatments are relatively easy and cheap to apply compared to broadcast sprays.
Disadvantages of treating seed:
  • Coats the seed with synthetic fungicides, such as with the chemical Captan. Captan is a pesticide found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Although banned in 1990, an exception was made for some specific crops, and for its use as a seed treatment.
  • Inhalation of aerosols and skin contact with seed treatments must be prevented in the seed treatment process. Do not breathe dust or fumes from treated seed or allow it to get in your eyes or on your skin.
  • Accidental poisoning. Treated seed looks like food to some animals. Hungry livestock that find carelessly handled treated seed will probably eat it. Birds, such as pheasants or quail, may consume spilled treated seed. Even young children may find and eat improperly stored treated seed.
  •   Treated seed also makes me feel under the control of large seed companies. Too many growers are dependent on patented seed and synthetic fertilizers and pestici
    des. I believe that we need to focus on using as few external inputs on the farm/garden that we can.  

There are organic ways to prevent seed disease and increase yields:
  • Natural seed treatment and root growth promoters formulated with macro and micro nutrients, amino acids, organic acids, root growth stimulants, enzymes, proteins, vitamins minerals and beneficial microbes.
  •  Buy certified seed, which is checked for the presence of certain seed borne diseases.
  • Practice crop rotation which reduces the populations of many insects and pathogens that survive in soil or crop residue.
  •  Maintaining appropriate soil fertility can reduce disease pressure. The lack of micronutrients, such as chloride, and an excess of major nutrients, such as nitrogen, can favor certain diseases.
  •   Planting crops around the correct date decreases the severity of some root rots, certain insects, and some insect-borne viruses.
  • Soaking seed in hot water can eliminate fungi and bacteria that cause common diseases. Be sure to look up correct procedures before attempting this to avoid damaging your seed.

Ok, so I bet you are wondering what I decided to do with the donated, treated seed. I gave out most of the seed to Grow Appalachia families and other community families, and then I disposed of the rest, instead of storing it over this winter for use next year.  I did not think I could throw free food away, but I will ask in the future whether the seed is treated when organizations offer to make donations to the program. As a program focused on sustainable agriculture and organic growing, I would like to avoid the distribution of treated seed (even if it is free).