New plant varieties are tested to determine if they are unique, to allow a botanical description to be compiled, and, in the case of agricultural crops, to ensure they have agronomic merit in the regions in which they will be grown.
Those varieties that successfully pass the Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS) test for uniqueness and where appropriate, the Value for Cultivation and Use (VCU) tests for merit are put on the UK National List of Varieties and can be freely marketed in the UK and EU. In addition, varieties that are DUS become eligible for a grant of Plant Breeders' Rights (PBR), a form of intellectual property right which allows the breeder to recoup his investment by charging royalties for the growing of his variety.
SASA has been involved in various aspects of variety testing from its earliest days. Initially, this covered potatoes and other important Scottish crops of the early 20th century such as turnips, swedes, fodder grasses and clover. The enactment of the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act (1964) introduced PBR in the UK and encouraged the development of private sector plant breeding, leading in turn to a growth in demand for variety testing. Accession to the EEC in 1972 saw a further increase in the need for variety testing and, at this time, SASA became one of the UK DUS test centres for potatoes, cereals, fodder crops and vegetables. Various rationalisations within the UK in the 1980s have resulted in the current position of SASA being the sole UK test centre for potatoes, peas, turnip rape, swede and vegetable crops. In addition, SASA is the co-ordinating centre for VCU testing of potatoes in the UK. Plant variety testing is operated on a UK basis and is coordinated through the Plant Variety Rights Office and Fera Variety and Seeds.
As a result of its long involvement with variety testing, SASA has built up a unique series of reference collections of its test crops. These collections are well characterised botanically and, in some cases, agronomically (eg potatoes). The Agency intends to make this information more publicly available, as and when time permits. Publication of the European Cultivated Potato Database which includes information on SASA's potato collection is part of this development, as is the Agricultural Crop Variety Database which holds similar information on cereal crops. Test information on new potato varieties can also be found under New Varieties.
SASA also undertakes the characterisation and evaluation of breeding material of grasses and clovers in conjunction with the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University.