Need to Know: Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies

In this first in a new “Need to Know” series, Hemp Grower introduces the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies.

July 16, 2020

Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a new, web-exclusive series presenting the people, organizations, places and events in the cannabis and/or hemp industries. In this first edition, Hemp Grower introduces the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies, a national non-profit overseeing and organizing state seed-certifying agencies.

Hemp farmers are well aware of the dangers of planting hot hemp—crops that test above the 0.3% THC legal limit. From lost revenue due to crop destruction, punitive fines or long-term license suspensions, the penalties for harvesting a hot crop can be onerous, if not flat out incapacitating, for small businesses.

In the January/February issue of Hemp Grower magazine, contributor Paul Barbagallo spoke with hemp experts to get their tips on how to avoid hot crops. One piece of advice was to choose known cultivars. But in a nascent industry filled with misinformation (along with a handful of unscrupulous operators), finding a trustworthy source for hemp genetics can be daunting.

Cue the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (or AOSCA, for short).

The AOSCA is an international standards organization “dedicated to assisting clients in the production, identification, distribution and promotion of certified classes of seed and other crop propagation materials,” according to the group’s website. AOSCA, originally founded in 1919 as the International Crop Improvement Association, coordinates efforts of official seed certifying agencies, establishes standards for genetic purity and seed quality and works with various regulatory agencies on developing policies and procedures relating to distributing and labeling seed commerce based on regulations outlined in the U.S. Federal Seed Act. (Additional services AOSCA provides include: Quality assurance testing, an Identity Preserved (IP) program that assists “in preserving the genetic and/or physical identity of a product” and an organic seed finder database.)

“Nearly every kind of agricultural crop that's grown has seed certification standards,” Chet Boruff, CEO of AOSCA, told Hemp Grower in an interview. “And those standards are always meant to make sure that seed is produced in a manner to maintain varietal purity.

“The same way that the NCAA has rules for all sorts of collegiate sports, we have standards for all sorts of agricultural seeds to maintain varietal purity,” he added. “But the same way that the NCAA game would be played at the local, state or conference level, … the seed grower in a particular state, for this case Illinois, let's say, would work with the certifying agency that covers Illinois, and [that agency] would oversee the production of that seed, making sure that it followed our standards or AOSCA's rules.”

Following the enactment of the 2014 Farm Bill, which legalized the cultivation of hemp as part of a state-regulated pilot program, AOSCA wrote its hemp standards. In 2020, it launched a hemp variety review board (VRB). As Boruff put it, certifying seed is step two in a two-step approach. Step one is having a variety with which to maintain varietal purity, which is where the VRB comes into play.

“The process for variety review and what must be taken into account is actually outlined in the Federal Seed Act,” Boruff explained. “The whole intent of any AOSCA VRB is to make sure that with any crop, what's being put forward as a new variety. We want to make sure that it is distinct and uniform and stable in its characteristics.”

The review board closed its most recent application deadline for hemp varietals on May 15, and applications are being “pre-reviewed” to “identify missing data, confirm conflicting information from one page to another, or to request supporting documentation.”

Once applications have been vetted for completion and accuracy, the variety review board conducts a peer-review off technical merit, focusing on genetic purity, product novelty (i.e. is it genetically different enough from other listed varieties), and data submitted to support claims made by breeders. The review boards are made up of “representatives from seed certification agencies, plant breeders, an official from the USDA’s plant variety protection office, and academics.”

“If the applicant was successful and they have in fact developed a new variety according to our review, the term we use is that variety is now eligible to be grown as Certified seed,” Boruff explained.

AOSCA certifies seed in four classes:

  • Breeder seed: seed directly controlled by the originating or sponsoring plant breeding organization.
  • Foundation seed: the progeny of Breeder or Foundation seed handled to maintain specific genetic purity and varietal identity.
  • Registered seed: the progeny of Breeder or Foundation seed handled to maintain satisfactory genetic purity and varietal identity.
  • Certified seed: the progeny of Breeder, Foundation or Registered seed handled to maintain satisfactory genetic purity and varietal identity.

An important part of the review process is verifying the genetic background of a new variety.

“One common shortcoming in many of the applications we recently reviewed is that there simply was very little or no background as to where that [hemp] variety even came from,” Boruff said. “For any plant breeder that's working on a new variety, they must keep detailed records on the lineage and the generational approach and the parents that they use to develop this variety” if they are looking to get it certified by a seed certifying agency.

Ultimately, buying certified seed helps growers standardize crops and helps predict outcomes. For breeders, Boruff explained, the benefit is being able to market your seed with a third-party organization supporting your claims.