Variety Verification Program - Questions and Answers

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What is the Variety Verification Program?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Variety Verification program evaluates the effectiveness of Canada's seed certification system. Samples of seed taken from the marketplace are planted in field plots and observed through the growing season to monitor the varietal purity and varietal identity of pedigreed seed produced in Canada.

How is Variety Verification testing conducted?

The CFIA's Ottawa Plant Laboratory, Seed Science Unit at Fallowfield, Ottawa grows field plots of samples of seed lots alongside plants grown from seed of the official reference sample of the same variety. Throughout the growing season, from seedling emergence to seed harvest, the visual morphological characteristics of the test plants are compared to the official Description of Variety (DoV) and to the plants grown from the official reference sample. Biochemical tests or DNA genotyping may be used for confirmation of the results found in the field plots.

Is Variety Verification testing required for the international trade in seed?

Yes. As a participant in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Seed Schemes for the Varietal Certification or Control of Seed Moving in International Trade (the OECD Seed Schemes), Canada is obliged to conduct variety verification testing on all OECD Pre-Basic and Basic status seed lots and a percentage of OECD Certified status seed lots that have been certified for export by the CFIA pursuant to the OECD Seed Schemes. Canada's participation in the OECD Seed Schemes enables Canada to be recognized internationally as a supplier of high quality seed with reliable varietal purity and varietal identity.

What is a "variety"?

The definition of a plant variety is the same as the definition of a "cultivar" provided by the International Union of Biological Sciences' Commission for the Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants. A variety denotes a group of cultivated plants, including hybrids constituted by controlled cross-pollination, that:

  • are distinguished by common morphological, physiological, cytological, chemical or other characteristics; and,
  • retain their characteristics when reproduced.

A variety must therefore be distinguishable, uniform, and stable.

What is Varietal Purity?

Varietal purity is a measure of the proportion of plants or seeds within the population that conform to the official description of the variety. Plants or seeds of the same kind, which are not of the variety, are considered varietal impurities, or off-types.

What is Varietal Identity?

The identity of a variety is defined by its characteristics, resulting from a given genotype or combination of genotypes. A varietal identity issue is identified when a test plot is composed entirely of plants that differ from the reference control and the DoV. Varietal identity issues can often be traced back to the mishandling or mislabelling of seed during production and conditioning or mis-identification of submitted samples.

How are the samples collected?

The Canadian Seed Growers' Association (CSGA) requests, directly from growers and distributors, samples of:

  • all Select status seed lots;
  • most Foundation status seed lots of cross-pollinated crop kinds;
  • Breeder status seed that has been demoted to a lower pedigreed status; and
  • seed lots produced by seed growers producing Probation plots.

The CFIA, in collaboration with the CSGA requests samples of seed from all pedigreed classes of the major crop kinds grown in Canada, from seed imported into Canada and seed destined for export out of Canada, and to meet various CFIA Seed Program objectives. Samples are submitted by CFIA inspectors, seed growers, seed distributors, registered seed establishments, authorised seed crop inspection services, seed laboratories and other seed value chain stakeholders.

The CFIA's seed inspectors also collect samples of seed from the marketplace, following complaints, and for inquiries and investigations. The CFIA may also request samples directly from seed distributors when seed has been multiplied abroad and the seed produced from the multiplication is returned to Canada.

How are seed lots selected for variety verification testing?

Variety verification samples are selected according to the following conditions.

  • OECD
    • all export seed lots of OECD Pre-Basic, Basic, Certified, and Not Finally Certified seed lots
  • by pedigreed status of the crop
    • Breeder status crops demoted to Foundation or Registered status
    • Select status crops of self-pollinated crop kinds (such as barley, bean, buckwheat, canary seed, durum, fababean, flax, lentil, lupin, oat, pea, rye, soybean, triticale and wheat)
    • Foundation status crops of cross-pollinated crop kinds (such as canola, mustard, industrial hemp, safflower and sunflower)
    • Targeted and randomly selected Foundation status crops of self-pollinated crop kinds
    • Probation plots
  • CFIA seed program specific requirements
    • imports of specific crop kinds, varieties, and/or seed from targeted regions
    • seed lots multiplied abroad
    • seed crops inspected by Licensed Seed Crop Inspectors
    • complaint, inquiry or investigation samples
    • varieties, crop kinds, growers, graders, conditioners, distributors or variety developers with a recurrent record of seed lots that meet the standards only when a tolerance is applied, that do not meet the standards, or for which the varietal identity is in question.
    • other targets as determined by the CFIA from time to time

If a seed crop was inspected and a crop certificate issued, why do you need additional variety verification testing?

Most seed crops are inspected just once in the growing season at a time when differences in plant characteristics can be most easily identified by visual inspection. Field crop standards for varietal purity in Canada are established by the Canadian Seed Growers' Association (the CSGA), e.g., five off-types permitted in 10,000 plants for Certified status cereal crops.

Variety verification testing applies the seed varietal purity standards established by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA), which are generally less stringent than the field varietal purity standards of AOSCA. Growing plants from seed samples allows the CFIA biologists to inspect plants multiple times throughout the growing season from emergence through to seed set and harvest. This provides a more detailed and precise assessment of the varietal purity and varietal identity of the seed lot than the field crop inspection alone.

What action is taken when the test results are known?

Variety verification testing is not intended to trigger investigation and enforcement actions. However, where varietal purity or varietal identity issues are identified, the CFIA works with the CSGA and the stakeholders involved to identify the source of the problem and appropriate follow up actions. In most cases, additional samples of the variety will be requested for further testing. The CFIA may also require samples from other crops produced by the grower who provided the original sample, samples from subsequent plantings of the seed lot, or samples of seed lots produced from the same parent stock. In addition, seed crop inspectors are provided with information on the off-types that may be found in subsequent plantings of the seed lot and related lots so that they are better able to identify the off-types should they appear in these related lots.

What are variants and how are they reported when found in variety verification testing?

Variants are plants that have different characteristics than plants of the variety, but are described in the official DoV as stable and uniform components of the variety. The DoV describes the morphology of the variants and maximum level of variants allowable for crop certification. Where the number of variants found is in excess of the allowable level described in the DoV, the excess plants are reported as off-types.

What is a tolerance?

A tolerance is a range of statistical uncertainty. There is a certain probability that the sample tested may not be perfectly representative of the seed lot. To adjust for this uncertainty, a tolerance or range of acceptable results is determined, based on statistical calculations. A seed sample that demonstrates off-types in excess of the standard may still be considered to have met the standard, when this tolerance or range of uncertainty is applied.

For instance, if the standard is five off-types per 10,000 plants, the tolerance could allow for as many as eight off-types per 10,000 plants before it could be said with confidence that the whole seed lot most likely does not meet the standard.

Who will be informed of the results of variety verification testing of their samples and when?

In general the party that supplied the seed will be informed as well as the producer of the seed and/or their assignee and any other party with a direct relationship to the seed lot represented by the sample. The results will be communicated as they are available in the summer growing season or in the fall when the full data set is prepared.

  • If the samples meet the standards then no notification will be sent.
  • If the sample meets the standard only when a tolerance is applied (meets with tolerance - MWT), then a notification will be sent with a description of the off-types as an aid to identifying and managing the off-types in subsequent crops.
  • If the sample fails to meet the standard even when a tolerance is applied (out of tolerance - OT), a notification will be sent as soon as possible with a description of the off-types and a request to provide information on the parent seed, the potential source of the off-types and the distribution of the seed lot.
  • If the sample is found to be not of the variety indicated, (varietal identity is compromised – VI), a notification will be sent immediately and the CFIA will trace back and forward to identify any other implicated seed lots.

In cases that require follow-up (MWT, OT and VI), additional samples from other plantings of the variety, the seed lot or other related seed lots will be requested for variety verification testing in the next year.

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