The molecular future of agriculture

How can advanced scientific knowledge be quickly translated into the conditions of agricultural production? What is the role of molecular testing in fighting pathogens? What and how should be tested on the agri-food market? Karolina Felczak-Konarska, Director of the Fertico Research Agency, tells us about it.

Please tell me what Fertico does?
We started in 2008 as an institution conducting research on the effectiveness of plant protection products – phytotoxicity tests, which were used in the process of registering plant protection products, fertilizers and growth regulators. We conduct such a research to this day in several facilities throughout Poland. In addition to the headquarters in Błędów near Grójec, our stations are also located in the Wielkopolskie Voivodeship – in the vicinity of Września, Grodzisk Wielkopolski, Piła and Gniezno, and in the Lubelskie Voivodeship we have branches in the vicinity of Lublin, Opole Lubelskie and Hrubieszów.

In the following years, we expanded the scope of our activities, e.g. including the aspect of field activities based on GLP (Good Laboratory Practice), starting to study residues of plant protection products. At the same time, in a natural way, due to the fact that our facility leased the fields necessary to conduct our research, we were able to observe what was happening in these fields on an ongoing basis. Based on this knowledge, we began to create our own outlines of detailed tests that addressed the current challenges faced by farmers and fruit growers. After a few years, having extensive experience confirmed by the GLP certificate in testing residues of plant protection products, we decided to expand our offer with laboratory tests. Hence, in 2017, the idea of establishing our own laboratory was born. A year later we started this project. The laboratory of the Agronomic Institute Fertico received accreditation from the Polish Center for Accreditation (PCA) and was officially opened in 2019.

Our laboratory specializes in analytical tests, which is the second component of field research. Currently, our standard list includes more than 710 active substances that we can analyze.  An important aspect of our scientific and research activity is the physico-chemical research department, which deals primarily with the implementation of physico-chemical tests of soil, water and plant tissues as well as parameters of food products. We also conduct molecular studies of pathogens, in particular studies of the early stage of pathogens development in plants, at the stage when the symptoms are not yet visible, but it is already possible to detect their presence using molecular techniques. The laboratory also has a microbiology department which focuses primarily on microbiological testing of food and water. These are the main directions of our research and technology.

Our clients are primarily companies from the agricultural and food industry – industrial scale processing companies – producers of juices, processed food, concentrates, companies that process fruit and vegetable, as well as distribution companies. A significant group of recipients of our research are individual clients with their own farms.

Where does the need for food tests come from?
The need to perform tests in an accredited laboratory is influenced by several factors. Firstly, it results from the obligations specified in the applicable legislation concerning the production and sale of food. In Poland, these are primarily legislative requirements resulting from regulations, it is a requirement to determine the compliance of results, e.g. in the case of heavy metals, pesticide residues or the presence of microbes – bacteria found in food products or in water. The second issue is the need to have PCA accreditation. Even if a large part of processing companies have their own production laboratories, they do not have the necessary accreditations. Accredited tests require a number of additional activities in the laboratory, including: proficiency tests, verification of methods, external auditing, etc. Therefore, PCA accreditation guarantees the credibility and recognition of the obtained results – both in Poland and in other European countries. This is especially important for companies exporting agricultural products or processed products. The motivation to perform tests results more and more often from companies’ internal requirements, caused by their own quality assurance procedures or audit needs. They result mainly from market requirements and the desire to maintain competitiveness – they often take the form of credibility or admissibility confirmation programs, as in the case of MRL (Maximum Residue Level), also retail chains have internal quality programs that have their own food standards.

What does the process of performing accredited tests look like in practice?
Although the tests themselves do not take a long time, the process of obtaining the PCA mark is not that simple. The first step is to prepare the laboratory to be an accredited laboratory. The accreditation process takes on average from six months to a year. Then the laboratory undergoes an audit and receives accreditation from the Polish Center for Accreditation. In order to issue accredited results, the laboratory must meet a number of criteria, including: proficiency tests, verification of the equipment used by the laboratory, calibration and certification – so as to be sure that the equipment works well and the measurements that are made on this equipment are correct. The next step is to verify the analysts who prepare the samples and perform the analyzes. They must undergo a number of trainings, obtain appropriate permissions and authorizations to perform certain types of tests. What is more, this process is repeated periodically – the laboratory, which is already accredited, undergoes verification audits every year.

In addition to the technical and formal part, obtaining accredited results consists of the appropriate methodology and research process – from the moment of accepting the sample to the moment the result is issued. Sampling is one of the most important aspects of the entire research process. At this stage, errors most often occur that affect the final result of the test. Therefore, special instructions are required for sampling. We always recommend our clients to read our instructions before taking samples – this applies to soil, water and food tests. In the case of vegetables or fruits, we test an average of 1.5 to 2 kg of product. Parts are cut off from each fruit delivered and ground to obtain an average representative sample. Before the sample goes to the laboratory, an order form is filled out, which specifies the type of tests to be performed. Each sample receives a special barcode, which becomes its identifier at all further stages of testing. Then it goes to the stage of sample preparation for analysis – preliminary processes of grinding and adding appropriate reagents. Further, depending on the test performed, the sample goes to the appropriate testing unit, e.g. for the presence of heavy metals, after initial mineralization, this would be an ICPMS, and in case of a plant protection product residue test, this would be an appropriate chromatograph device. The test itself takes up to 24 hours, depending on the number of compounds that the analysis requires.  The obtained result is analyzed, calculated and checked with the relevant regulations and finally we prepare the final report.

How is the approach to food tests changing? What are the latest trends in this area?
First of all, our tests are becoming more and more detailed and comprehensive. New market requirements impose on us the need to constantly increase the number of active substances that we analyze. At the beginning, we started with 200, now the standard is 710 active substances that are analyzed, and the current testing capacity reaches 800. Therefore, laboratories must constantly develop, search for new research methods, and improve their processes.

There is a growing demand for testing the presence of glyphosate both in agricultural crops and in water, testing environmental pollution, and testing the presence of heavy metals in water, soil or plant tissues. The direction is to detect any contaminants as early as possible, so that they do not go to the next step in the entire food production and processing chain.

It is also worth emphasizing that the also the farmers’ approach to agricultural crop testing is gradually changing. Increasingly, we are contacted directly by the producers themselves, as they want to be sure of the quality of their products before selling. They regularly control the effects of cultivation, so it meets the highest standards.

In field research, changes and improvements of the existing methodologies are made all the time. This is particularly important in the aspect of plant protection products – in screening tests, we perform tests on plant protection product residues as a standard. Increasingly, we also study the impact on the environment – residues in the soil or in plants. In recent years, the demand for new tests of agricultural crops has also increased, e.g. in terms of changes in sugar or starch content.

All this imposes on us the need to introduce new types of tests and related procedures to our offer, invest in new equipment and generally increase its capabilities. In addition, having accreditation involves passing audits performed by two main offices that exercise the main formal supervision over the work of laboratories in Poland – the Polish Center for Accreditation and the Bureau for Chemical Substances.  These institutions also constantly increase the requirements for laboratories.

And what is the role of tests in the sustainability of agricultural production and the implementation of the European Green Deal?
Laboratory testing is an important element in the sustainability and balance of all agricultural, fruit or breeding practices. Starting from the moment of field preparation and soil and water testing, through the identification of pathogens and the testing of agricultural products, including the analysis of heavy metal residues and plant protection products, to the processing where the raw material is tested. Thanks to the introduced tests standards, farmers are able to produce healthy food of better quality and of greater value.

And it all starts with the soil and physico-chemical tests. They are already a standard in Poland, and their main purpose is to support farmers in clarifying the necessary amount of fertilization. We have long moved away from giving fertilizer “by feel”. More and more often we consciously use the available technological possibilities that show us what are the real parameters of the cultivated soil – the content of micro and macro elements, pH, content of organic substances, nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium or calcium. Thanks to regular soil tests, farmers not only optimize the amount of fertilizers used, but also improve the quality of the soil itself. The increase in costs and the decline in the availability of fertilizers have only accelerated these changes in recent years. Our AgroFertiLab service, which combines precise field or orchard mapping with laboratory soil analysis, meets these expectations and allows for precise determination of soil fertility and precisely define fertilizer recommendations. This means not only less use of fertilizers, but also less intensive use of agricultural equipment, which means lower CO2 emissions.

Another area of research that supports farmers in the implementation of European Green Deal are tests that identify pathogens. They are performed before symptoms appear, at a time when we can still react appropriately. This allows for the appropriate selection of plant protection products and limiting their preventive use. Farmers today have access to molecular testing, which allows them to make better decisions about the use of crop protection products and potentially use smaller amounts, as earlier detection of the pathogen means that smaller amount of crop protection product that will be effective. Performing such tests also translates into a more accurate selection of the pathogen control agent, which increases the effectiveness of its use and improves biodiversity in the fields, crops or orchards. At the same time, it is a very good example of how advanced scientific knowledge can be quickly and practically translated into agricultural production conditions and applied in practice.

So we can say that food in Polish stores is healthy?
Yes. The purpose of the tests is to control and maintain quality. Consumers are not fully aware of the path of food products to the store shelf and the role of food testing. Agricultural production is a complex process, and the composition and content of the final food product is influenced by many factors. The food industry is one of the most regulated sectors of the economy. All food products, before hitting the store shelf, are tested, usually at several different stages – from soil and water testing, at the stage of cultivation, testing of the raw product – both in terms of the content of active and microbiological substances, and then testing of processed products and final food products. Even restaurants test the vegetables and fruits they buy, which are then used for catering purposes.

Thank you for the interview!