EVANSVILLE, Ind., Sept. 12 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week imposed major import restrictions on tomato and pepper seeds after discovering that many of those seeds have been silently carrying a serious plant disease into the country.
The restrictions are intended to protect U.S. agriculture from an outbreak, the agency says. But industry groups fear they also will drastically reduce the number of seeds growers can obtain in the coming year.
"It has the ability to significantly impact the availability of tomato seeds," said John Mizicko, business development manager for Eurofins BioDiagnostics Inc., which performs plant and seed health testing and treatments.
"There will be less seed. So, when you go buy tomatoes at the grocery store, they're not going to be $1.99 a pound. They're going to be a lot more expensive."
Most of the tomato and pepper seeds used in the United States -- and around the world -- are produced in Asian countries, namely China, as well as Mexico and South America.
Seed companies save a lot of money by producing the seeds overseas, said Mizicko, who is a certified crop adviser with a degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University. But that means those seeds are exposed to plant diseases that are not present in the United States.
The disease, in this case, is called pospiviroid infection.
Pospiviroids are a plant pest that mainly infect tubers. They are most dangerous to potato plants, causing "severe stunting, leaf or stem necrosis, flowering alterations and foliar and fruit deformations," William Wepsala, a USDA spokesman, said in an email.
"They cause major issues with potatoes," said Ric Dunkle, the senior director for seed health and trade at the American Seed Trade Association. "And, it turns out, you can find some of these viroids in tomato and pepper seeds. Tomatoes and peppers are a close relative of potatoes. They're all the same family."
The USDA has long known this, and for years it required the seed industry to certify that no disease was present in the plants before their seeds could be imported. The industry did this by monitoring the fields where the plants grew for signs of the disease.
"The industry never observed any outbreaks in commercial tomatoes or peppers anywhere," Dunkle said.
And that remains the case today, he said. But last year, countries in the European Union began to use newly developed molecular testing to determine if pospiviroids were present on seeds produced in China -- and they found them.
So, the USDA began testing a wider variety of seeds from several countries.
"They found pospiviroids in quite a few samples," Dunkle said. "That surprised us."
So, as of Sunday, the USDA required all tomato and pepper seeds to be tested by agencies in their country of origin before they can touch U.S. soil.
"We have amended the entry requirements for tomato and pepper seeds to better protect U.S. agriculture," Wepsala said.
The problem now, industry groups say, is many of those countries don't have the resources to perform the tests.
"A lot of the countries we're seeing -- like China, India and Mexico -- they don't have the capacity or the ability to do this testing," Mizicko said. "The U.S. requires them to do the test, but these countries don't do testing. This makes it very difficult for the seed companies to bring in seed."
In the short term, the new regulation will create a backlog at the few facilities in those countries that do testing.
Seed companies are diverting the seeds normally bound for American processing plants to other countries with fewer import restrictions.
"In the U.S., there are a number of companies that have highly sophisticated seed processing plants," Dunkle said. "We're talking millions of dollars of seed coming into the U.S. to be processed. These facilities won't have work now."
This will cause the overall number of commercial seeds around the world to plummet , he said.
"Companies are saying they have some seed in inventory," Dunkle said. "But we're probably going to start seeing shortages around the world and here in the U.S. soon."
Industry groups, like the American Seed Trade Association, are meeting regularly with the USDA to find a compromise that protects U.S. agriculture from pospiviroids without disrupting seed trade, Dunkle said.
One option is for the USDA to allow seeds to be imported without testing and then have them tested in the United States. This approach would reduce the testing bottleneck.
However, such an action would go against the USDA's overall pest exclusion strategy, which focuses on clearing produce of pests in their country of origin.
The USDA did not comment on any potential compromise.
"We have been working closely with the seed industry to prevent the introduction of harmful pathogens in seed," Wepsala said. "We are also working with them to minimize trade impacts associated with this recent order."