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History of seed exchange

The FAO document, “Handling Forest Tree Seed”, published in 1955 (FAO 1955a), noted: “Some parts of the world have an abundance and others are lacking tree species. International exchange of tree seeds is an opportunity to share the world’s forest wealth.”

“There is something very fitting about the exchange of seeds between nations. In distributing seeds of its native trees, a nation loses nothing of its own resources, but [provides] other countries with trees that have been its wealth and pride.”. Already at that time, 50 years before the invention of the word, “biosafety”, the book noted: "There are, however, certain dangers, and care must therefore be used to see that only the best stock of suitable geographic source is utilized, and that no diseases, insects or noxious weeds are inadvertently imported.”

The international transfer of germplasm and cultivation of agricultural, forestry and other introduced plant species have long histories. Apart from helping human populations to meet basic needs of food and fibre, exotic plants have at times helped direct or change history. As noted by Midgley, in the late 15th Century, a European craving for pepper and spices influenced the Portuguese, Italian and Spanish exploration of other continents; sugar cane and the need for labour for its cultivation led to trans-Atlantic slave trade and shaped the modern Caribbean; the potato and its narrow genetic base and pest problems in Ireland in the mid 1980s led directly to one of the great human migrations in history (Midgley 1999).

Vigorous action to introduce forest tree species from other countries was also evident already early in the 20th century. As an example of the boom in forest tree seed trade, the Danish author, N.E. Tulstrup, in a fascinating article in Unasylva in 1959, noted that during the winter 1901-02, one single seed firm in Darmstadt, Germany received from France and Belgium more than 200 railway truck-loads of Scots pine cones. The seed was widely distributed in Germany and neighbouring countries from a kiln in the city, simply as seed of "Darmstadt origin" (Tulstrup 1959). No wonder that Central Europe has over the past years experienced problems with extensive areas of mal-adapted forests, reportedly of “native species”, which are dying of causes attributed to anything from acid rain to climate change, insects and diseases!

Inter-continental trade in forest seed was first documented in the early days of the eighteenth century, when seed of several eastern American species were shipped to Europe for use as ornamentals. Plantations of species such as Picea glauca and Pinus strobus, and some North American hardwood species, were also established in Europe at the time. The first introductions of eucalypts into the Mediterranean region took place in the early 1800's, and large-scale plantations were established in the second half of the century. In some of today’s main eucalypt-planting countries, such as Brazil, large-scale plantations were started in 1910 or later. China first introduced eucalypts in the 1890s (FAO 1956a). By 1998, China had close to one million hectares of eucalypt plantations (Midgley 1999; FAO 2002).

In the wake of increasing interest, FAO and the Forestry and Timber Bureau organized a two-month International Study Tour on Eucalypts in Australia in 1952. Forestry experts from 24 countries participated in this tour, with the purpose of familiarizing themselves with the natural environment of eucalypts of actual or potential value to other countries. Country reports prepared by the participants showed that eucalypts had been planted in more than 50 Mediterranean, sub-tropical and tropical countries, for a range of purposes, (mainly for firewood, but also for posts, poles, mining timber and charcoal, for railway sleepers, sawnwood, pulpwood and as windbreaks, in land reclamation, soil fixation and for the production of oils, other extractives and foodstuffs such as honey). The two countries that at that time had introduced the largest number of eucalypt species were Brazil and South Africa. At the same time, it was noted that, while some 30 species of eucalypts in Australia were used for industry at a relatively large scale, little eucalypt planting had taken place in the country up to that time (FAO 1955).

A First World Eucalyptus Conference, was organized by FAO in Rome in 1956. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the advantages and the disadvantages of eucalypts, and to review progress in research, silviculture and utilization. The conference noted that, thanks to the adaptability and versatility of species of Eucalyptus, they were rapidly being introduced in a number of countries: “Species of [the genus Eucalyptus] have made it possible to reclaim and afforest waste lands, fix dunes, increase crop yields through shelter afforded by windbreaks, and augment farm returns by plantations in various forms” (FAO 1956a).

Interestingly, the Conference addressed the fears expressed in certain circles concerning an excessive extension of planting as regards both soil evolution and possible difficulties in utilizing the timber produced. In the conclusions it was however noted that such fears were generally groundless, or greatly compensated by, “the immediate anticipated physical, economic and social advantages of planting eucalypts on land unsuited for farming or no longer farmed, or in replenishment of degraded forests”. Possible adverse effects were, moreover, ”limited by the prospects opened up by the conversion of [eucalypt] plantations into relatively stable formations by means of associated [local] species.” Potential problems could be avoided, “with all the techniques, care and protection that such [tree] crops require”.

These statements, made in 1956, are very much in line with the findings of the FAO study carried out in the mid 1980s on the ecological effects of species of the genus Eucalyptus and published as Forestry Paper 59 (FAO 1985).

In relation to future markets, the 1st Eucalyptus Conference (op.cit.) noted: “Supply of abundant, regular, easily accessible and therefore cheap produce, will always find a market in very many regions”. This same principle was echoed in the first edition of the FAO book, “Eucalypts for Planting”, which had been published just prior to the meeting, in 1955, which noted, maybe in a somewhat overly critical manner, and without giving credit to the principle, “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder”: ”In many countries, the most pressing forestry problem is quick production, not so much high quality timber. Eucalypts provide remarkable material for planters who, in the regions of the globe poorest in forest resources, believe in the efficient production of wood in quantity, even if the crops grown do not measure up to the exacting standards of silviculturists of the old school or truly represent ‘the forest beautiful’ ” (FAO 1955). Fast growth of eucalypts, more than beauty, was also stressed by Dal Stivens who, in an article in 1966 published in Unasylva noted: “...eucalypts outside of Australia, [are reported to grow much] faster than they do in their homeland; that is [at least] what some Californians claim, but they have been known to make extravagant claims before" (Stivens 1966).

By the time of the second FAO World Eucalyptus Conference, held in São Paulo, Brazil in 1961, close to one half of a million hectares had been planted with eucalypts in that country, and 144 species of this genus had been field tested, covering many climatic regions (FAO 1961). The area of eucalypts in Brazil is today just under 3 million hectares (FAO 2002).

Since the 1920's, much evidence accumulated which showed the importance of seed source and provenance for adaptation and growth. Despite this realization, and despite vigorous dissemination of information on the importance to ensuring that seed used was of good physiological quality, international trade in forest tree seed continued to rely on the lowest bid. Despite the “common knowledge” that seed quality will decisively influence the success or failure of tree planting projects, seed matters are still today often considered peripheral to mainstream forestry. In the Second Eucalypt Conference, one of the Grand Old Men of Australia, Max Jacobs, noted: “Tree-planting programmes in many countries are still at the stage of using seed and stock from the most readily available sources, frequently irrespective of species and generally irrespective of quality and origin” (Jacobs 1961). Steve Midgely and co-authors, almost 40 years later, in the Beijing IUFRO Tree Breeding Conference in 1998, noted that seed procurement was still, in the wake of the 21st century, more often than not the responsibility of administrative and clerical rather than technical staff in plantation programmes- and, thus, seed purchase was still in the late 1990s frequently based on the cheapest bid (Midgley 1999, 1999a).

Both Jacobs in 1961, and Midgely in 1999, stressed that seed cost constituted a minute proportion of that of forest plantation establishment: from 0.1 to just over 3%. Jacobs noted, pointedly, in his 1961 presentation: “There is no purpose in any country purchasing eucalypt seed to a certain value unless funds are available at a rate of at least one hundred times that value [for plantation establishment and management]”. The FAO slogan from the 1950s: “Good Seed Does Not Cost, It Pays”, was re-launched, first in a 1989 IUFRO meeting in Queensland, and subsequently forcefully stressed by the Australian Tree Seed Centre in its publicity campaigns in the 1990s (Anon 2002e,f). A complementing principle, stressed to national governments and donor agencies alike over the years by both CSIRO and FAO, is that seed-related work deserves strong investment in local technical and administrative skills; the managers of seed are, in fact, managing a very valuable resource.

My own message, over the past 30 years, has been that any seedlot moving within or outside of national borders without documentation on origin, provenance and genetic and physiological quality, must be disqualified from use and -without fail or exception- coldly discarded. I have stressed that the frequently expressed opinion, “any seed is better than no seed at all”, could not be more misguided, outright wrong and potentially of great and irreversible harm to our genetic patrimony (Palmberg-Lerche 1993a,1999). Needless to say, seed records must follow through from nursery to plantation, and be maintained throughout the life of the plantation- as stressed already in the 1st World Consultation on Forest Tree Breeding in 1963 (FAO 1963,1964). There are still today many sins committed against this rule, in many or most countries in the world.

The need to safeguard local genepools against pollution from hybridising, outside sources of pollen, has gone hand in hand with such messages. Unfortunately, as evidenced in the writings of Tulstrup, mentioned above, the case seems to have been lost for many species in much of Europe. Millar and Libby, in noting an almost total lack of understanding of the risks and potential losses related to the contamination of local genepools by pollen from introduced genetic materials, have called the unqualified calls for use of “native species”, a “Disneyland Fantasy” (Millar and Libby 1989).

There is an urgent need for major actors, including prestigious establishments such as the European Community and the Convention on Biological Diversity, to heed established scientific and technical principles related to movement of forest germplasm and conservation which take into consideration the need to safeguard local genepools, and to discontinue incentives and correct regulations which may negatively affect such principles.

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