Seed Testing in times of COVID-19 and Beyond

Edição XXV | 05 - Set . 2021
    SEEDnews met with Dr. Steve Jones, President of the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA), and Dr. Andreas Wais, ISTA Secretary General, to talk about the current situation on testing of seeds during the pandemic situation caused by COVID-19 and the future in seed testing with a special emphasis of South and Central America.
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    SN: How was seed sampling and testing affected by the COVID-19 situation?

    SKJ: Andreas and I gave a webinar on this topic in October 2020 to try to keep the ISTA membership and stakeholders up to date with how ISTA labs worldwide were coping with the pandemic. In most countries seed testing for both export and domestic needs was seen as a critical service to allow the continued trade in quality tested seed using internationally agreed methods and help feed the world. The fact that this work continued is a testament to the professionalism and dedication of the people doing seed sampling and testing. At this time, many labs are back to routinely testing within a new normal laboratory situation that ensures results continue to be provided and facilitate national and international trade but that also keep staff safe.

    AW: In the middle of last year the Secretariat initiated a questionnaire on how accredited laboratories were affected by local pandemic measures like lockdowns and travelling policies especially regarding sampling. We could see that most laboratories were operational. Some of them only concentrated on ISTA work related to issuing ISTA Orange International Certificates (OICs). Some of them were using a shift system to reduce the number of staff in the laboratory and always having the same members of staff in each shift. There was one country in South America with only one (national) seed testing laboratory, which was closed for several months, but could catch up again. In other countries some national laboratories and laboratories attached to universities were closed as well. Fortunately, this had no negative effect, as there were other either private or governmental laboratories in their country, which could take over. In some countries sampling was difficult but could be overcome by training other local official samplers to sample seed lots in international trade. In these cases, remote training was possible using the sampling training videos on the ISTA YouTube channel produced by the ISTA Bulking and Sampling Committee. This reduced the impact to a minimum. In total more than 200’000 ISTA OICs were supplied in 2020 to the laboratories, which was even more than in 2018 and 2019.

    SN: This looks like the situation was quickly returning in most countries to kind of normal procedure for issuing ISTA Certificates. How was ISTA affected concerning auditing of ISTA accredited laboratories?

     AW: ISTA quickly reacted to the situation and the ECOM decided to prolong the accreditation status for laboratories to be audited in 2020 for one year. There were also discussions between the ISTA, and the International Seed Federation (ISF) initiated by ISTA, which resulted in a common communication to ISTA and ISF members to inform them on this.
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    SKJ:  Remote or “virtual” auditing was always an option under exceptional circumstances for ISTA due to travel restrictions/safety considerations for auditors travelling to some parts of the world, even before COVID. But for the last 18 months remote auditing of ISTA laboratories became a necessity and became the norm for both ISTA auditors and laboratories. Remote auditing is actually more time consuming for both auditors and labs and in the opinion of many is not as good as on-site audits. The ECOM and ISTA Accreditation Department will continue to review the use of remote audits and update the ISTA policy as required, and safety concerns will still be what drives the decision to have a remote audit.

     SN: Will ISTA keep virtual audits?

    SKJ: The plan is to move back to on-site audits of laboratories when it is safe to do so. ISTA aims to have ISTA auditors from all regions of the world and FYI there are currently two auditors in training from South America (1 from Brazil and 1 from Argentina)

    SN: Coming to virtual, several events previously done in person took place by video meeting tools, like Workshops, information sessions for rules changes or other topics as well as the Ordinary General Meeting of ISTA, will you keep this?

    SKJ: One of the good things to come out of COVID are the wider use of web-based communication tools and as a result more people could get a flavour for the great work done by the Technical Committees of ISTA and be more involved in the annual meetings of ISTA. For example, the web-based information session on the annual Rules proposals by Ernest Allen as ISTA Rules Chair was very well received and this will become an annual event. The meeting with the Designated Authorities was also appreciated by many people land could be annual web-based event too. But there is no doubt people miss in-person meetings and the chance to network and discuss different topics over lunch or coffee. ISTA is looking at having virtual sessions at future in-person meeting to achieve the best of both worlds, as even pre-COVID not everyone could travel to all ISTA events and ISTA would like to involve as many people as possible in the world of seed science, technology, and testing.

    AW: As Steve mentioned, there were a number Web meetings replacing in-person meetings, and some will be kept. We were also able to have the Ordinary General Meeting (OGM) of the Association in a virtual form. As you know, ISTA is an Association under Swiss Law, where normally the OGM voting part is required as an in-person meeting, which is also fixed in the ISTA Articles. Nonetheless, the Swiss Government reacted quickly introducing Corona Regulations, which allowed in 2019 and 2020 that these meeting could be held virtually. At the moment it looks like that this will not be the case for the 2022 OGM and we will need to come back to in-person meetings, but we will see what is safe to do and what we are required to follow by Swiss law. The two virtual OGMs were still a success and allowed us to progress our essential business voting. Indeed, more voting delegates casted their vote than in the previous recent years. But on the other hand, we all missed the longer and over coffee break or supper discussions around the topics to be voted on, with the information mostly available in written form only. We are looking forward having the next OGM in New Zealand, where in addition to the regular points to be handled also a new Executive Committee will be elected.

    SN: ISTA started a project funding research on innovation in seed testing. Is this still ongoing?

    SKJ:  Yes, ISTA used some of the membership reserves to facilitate research in key areas proposed by the ISTA Technical Committees in collaboration with other organizations. The first projects proposed 3 years ago, and nearing completion and progress is being reported in the October 2021 edition of STI. The first projects focused on new technologies and their potential use in ISTA laboratories, as well as surveying laboratories on what new technologies they currently use. Others are looking at the possibility of ISTA laboratories testing for insects in seed samples and new vigour methods. Indeed, not all projects are research based some are looking at providing updated images and factsheets for the ISTA Universal List and the Seedling Evaluation Handbook.

    SN: Talking about new technologies. Are there other innovations on the horizon?

    AW: ISTA discussed for some time now the possibility of issuing electronic ISTA Certificates (eCertificates). A feasibility study was performed by Massey University, which was available in 2019. From this data a project was initiated, and a budget was set up. The project needed to be combined with a new set-up of the ISTA website to have the most recent technology available. Both projects are in the design phase with an IT company also specialised in web design based in Switzerland and we are looking forward to being online with the new website in late summer this year and start a beta testing for the eCertificates by the end of 2021 with a Pilot Project in 2022. The complete eCertificate system will be available after making necessary changes to the ISTA Rules in 2023.
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  Currently there is no plan to remove the option to issue hard copy versions of the OIC and BIC.  But being able to issue an ISTA eCertificate is an exciting option for laboratories and links with the need to send information about seed lots to end users in a quick, easy, and secure way. This also links with other similar options from OECD and ePhyto to provide digital reports/certificates. The ISTA system will be separate to these but should continue to help facilitate the export of seed lots globally, the reason why ISTA was first formed in 1924.

    SN: That sounds very interesting. You will probably keep us updated on the electronic ISTA Certificates. ISTA is currently talking about a revised Strategy for the next triennium. Can you tell us something, on what we can expect?

    SKJ: The ISTA Strategy is reviewed on a three-year cycle linked to the election of the ISTA Executive Committee (ECOM) at every ISTA Congress. The current ECOM is preparing to consult with the ISTA membership and stakeholders to help modify the strategy for 2022 to 2025. As the in-coming ISTA President for this period Dr Keshavulu Kunusoth is leading this process. One of the likely actions could be to increase the number of tropical species included in the ISTA Rules and provide help with testing existing species. For example, recently ISTA has published on its website a seed id guide from Dr Doris Groth from Brazil about eight different Urochloa (= Brachiaria) species. Another initiative already started under the current ISTA Strategic plan is  Young@ISTA which Andreas can give you some more information about.
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    AW: Young@ISTA is a special project also initiated by Dr. Keshavulu Kunusoth. It will be a permanent project to attract young scientists and analyst to seed testing. The project will include travel bursaries for attending ISTA meetings and workshops, waiving publication fees for the ISTA Scientific Journal Seed Science and Technology (SST), financial support on sojourns for training in laboratories outside the own country and more. We set up a Young@ISTA forum on LinkedIn, where young people can exchange ideas and we can inform them on new developments like mentioned above.

    SN: Thank you Dr. Jones and Dr. Wais. Is there something else you would like to share with our readers?

    AW: Two years ago, we started with the publication of the ISTA Rules in Spanish. Now the first handbook will be produced in Spanish as well. This might only be little help to our colleagues in Brazil, but there is a benefit to all other South and Middle American countries. Personally, I hope that I will be able to join the long postponed ABRATES Meeting next year and give a presentation there on the latest developments at ISTA.

    SKJ: South American countries have always been active in ISTA since its foundation, and we look forward to that continued support and relationship in the future. Currently Ignacio Aranciaga is on the ISTA ECOM and is the regional link for South America to the ECOM. ISTA laboratories and members supported the seed analyst meetings in Argentina last year and look forward to supporting the one in Uruguay this year.  We look forward to supporting future meetings like this and holding in-person workshops in the region when we can. Thank for the opportunity to discuss these topics with you, take care and stay safe.