Immediately following a public hearing on April 24, the Arkansas Plant Board passed new seed labeling requirements for the state. On labels, seed companies must now list varieties and brand names for cotton, soybeans, wheat and rice. Only cover crop wheat seed escaped the new regulation. With voice votes the board also passed new regulations on:
Boll weevil eradication (among other things, setting Northeast Delta Zone fees for 2006-07 at $14 per acre).
Turfgrass certification (bringing the state in line with national standards).
A ban on several invasive plants.
During the hearing, Don Johnston, Delta and Pine Land soybean operations manager, said the proposed seed regulations would assist producers “in making decisions on what kind of varieties to plant, or not plant, on the farm…One of the arguments we keep hearing (against the regulations) is this will prevent companies from marketing their seed. That isn't the case. Many states around us already have (similar) laws and I don't know any company marketing in Arkansas but not in Mississippi or Louisiana (where such varietal laws are in place).”
William Johnson echoed Johnston. “We're in full support of abolishing the VNS regulations,” said the Pioneer field sales agronomist. “The reason we support this is to provide some type of transparency so a farmer will know if he's planting the same genetics. We've seen time and again, some… VNS (Variety Not Stated) varieties appear to be just like other brands. It's important the farmers are able to pick and choose varieties and to plant the same genetics.”
Jim Thompson with Rice-Tec, Inc., asked that rice be excluded from the new regulations. “I've spent the last 29 years in the seed trade, primarily in Arkansas and throughout the Mid-South… Hybrid rice, as a type, is the only species I'm aware of in Arkansas that's both open-pollinated and a hybrid-seeded crop. While there are similarities in the labeling of the two, there are also some… nuances that are specific to hybrids.”
Unlike other crops with multi-licensing agreements between companies, Thompson said, there's yet to be “an issue between the branding and varietal labeling of rice. There haven't been any multi-licensing agreements. In fact, we're the only ones we're aware of with private breeding efforts for rice. Anheuser Busch at one time had some, but no longer. Other than the universities and USDA, we're the only player.
“There are some things being done on traits between private companies and the universities to bring traits to the market. Thus far, those have been brought to the market by one other company, Horizon, which is very strict in contractual agreements between producers, processors and conditioners. None of that has been multi-branded or multi-labeled.”
Further, Thompson warned the new regulations could give farmers a false sense of security. “Every single variety is listed on a characteristics chart put out by the company marketing them. To me, the smart move is to go to those and compare them, see how they stack up on disease resistance and different soil types… Just having a different varietal name on them doesn't guarantee they're different in those aspects.
“I know this for a fact: you can have a different patent number, a different PVP number, a different legal and official varietal name for… seed from the same crossing and progeny with only a different, say, pubescence color — one ‘tawny’ and one ‘grey.’ All the other characteristics — the ones that will affect things on the farm — may be exactly the same. A farmer might think he's got diversity and is protected when, in fact, (the varieties) are similar except in varietal name.”
Most of the morning's testimony and board discussion was on several invasive plants. Although popular with landscapers and pond-owners, water hyacinth and Japanese blood grass (or cogon grass) had been suggested for a sale and use ban. While several nursery owners asked for no ban, most comments were in favor of it.
“Increasingly, we're seeing exotic and invasive species posing a serious threat to… our lands and we're investing considerable resources in their control,” wrote Theo Witsell, botanist/field ecologist with Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, in a letter read to the board. “Both cogon grass and water hyacinth are well-documented… in the Southeast and are known to have the capacity to disrupt ecosystem structure and function and negatively impact native plant species and communities… ”
Water hyacinth forms large, dense masses that “compete with other aquatic species for light, nutrients and oxygen,” wrote Johnny Gentry, director and curator of the University of Arkansas herbarium in another letter.
“These masses reduce dissolved oxygen levels and light, increase water temperature, and significantly alter aquatic communities. Recent fieldwork in support of an invasive plant study… has discovered new and expanding populations in the state. The most extensive populations are in the Camden area and the lower part of the Arkansas River.
A population of several hundred plants was located in the Ouachita River east of Arkadelphia.”
Gentry said Japanese blood grass is often described “as non-invasive although published proof of this claim is lacking. However, its basic nature is well-documented. It drastically modifies ecosystems by forming dense masses of thatch and leaves that shade and outcompete native plants. In addition, it provides poor habitat and forage for animals.”
Others supporting the ban claimed water hyacinth can double in area size every 10 days and has no effective control measures once loose.
Those testifying said the plant has been found around Dardanelle's waterways in central Arkansas along with, further south, Pendleton Lake, Arkansas Post Lake, Merrisach Lake, the lower White River and the Mississippi River.
“These are two of the world's worst weeds,” said Robert Wiedenmann, a Plant Board member and entomologist at the University of Arkansas. “While they may not be overwintering in the northern part of the state now, we also once said that of fire ants. They're doing quite well in Fayetteville, now.”
“You just can't use these things anywhere because of the chance they'll adapt to colder climates,” agreed Richard Collins, another Plant Board member, just prior to the ban passing.
“Virtually all species… eventually creep north… For it to get distributed wider… (all that's required is) one genetic variation that's winter-hardy. I don't think we can take the chance.”