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Australian Tree Seed Centre: early days and development over the years

In 1957, the 9th Session of the FAO Conference noted that the extensive use of high-quality seed of improved varieties in agriculture was, “one of the most generally and most economically applicable measures for increasing productivity" (FAO 1957). The launching by FAO of the year 1961 as the “World Seed Year, within the framework of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, aimed to vigorously raise awareness of this principle throughout the world. In this campaign, and in all documentation and in the many events related to it, it was officially recognized that an important element in any strategy to ease and fight hunger and malnutrition in the world related strongly also to the production and use of better forest tree seed and to increased efforts in forest genetics and tree improvement (FAO 1959, 1959a; Anon 1960).

Within the framework of the World Seed Year, FAO Member Governments were called upon to initiate or intensify, "programs for the production and distribution of high quality seeds through a suitable national authority". “The Eucalyptus Clearing House”, was established in 1962 by the Forestry and Timber Bureau of Australia in support of these calls for action (FAO 1961, 1963, 1964).

The original mandate of the Eucalyptus Clearing House was to, (i) assemble and disseminate technical information on Eucalyptus species most suitable for wood production and for sheltering field and food crops; (ii) assist in the procurement of certified seeds of Eucalyptus species suitable for use in countries outside of Australia; and (iii) conduct research on the genetics of Eucalyptus and in tree breeding for improved varieties. It was stressed that all of these activities would also benefit Australian growers and the Australian forest industry, both directly and indirectly, through information gathered from other countries which would complement and help expand the knowledge base in Australia. The United Nations, and more specifically FAO, was recognized as the proper coordinating agent for the work at international level (FAO 1961; Jacobs 1961).

Dr. Max Jacobs, in a paper prepared for the Second Eucalyptus Conference in Brazil in 1961, noted that the Forestry and Timber Bureau would not be the sole provider of seed and information, but would work in close collaboration with the State Forest Services, Universities and other appropriate Australian institutions. In addition to being a decision in principle, this was in fact a necessity: seed collection in Australia at the time was routinely done in connection with commercial felling and, therefore, there was a need to ensure that seed crops were available in areas being felled, synchronizing timing of felling and seed collection. Jacobs, further, noted that it was hoped to gradually improve arrangements also for the collection of seed of non-commercial eucalypts desired in other countries. However, he warned that orders may take a considerable time to fulfil, seed would be expensive, and it would likely only be possible to supply very small quantities of seed, which should be used by introducing countries for the establishment of seed production areas to satisfy additional needs (Jacobs 1961).

It is interesting to note that, from the outset, it was stressed that Australian seedlots should be sold at cost or commercial price, in acknowledgement of the considerable costs involved in arranging and ensuring the supply of seed of good quality. It was noted that only if those receiving seed were obliged to pay for it, would they fully understand the value of this important commodity and treat it with the care it deserved. It was repeatedly stressed, echoing the recommendations of many sessions of the FAO Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, that countries seriously interested in eucalypts should develop their own seed sources of all major exotic species and provenances in use, soonest possible (FAO 1968-2002).

Commencing in 1962, the Forestry and Timber Bureau routinely provided a leaflet on seed handling with each seed order, hoping thus to help prevent wasteful use of seed and enable limited supplies to assist more countries. These leaflets, subsequently, grew into useful, massive reference books, used throughout the world. The publication of two magum opuses, “Growing trees on Australian farms” (Brown 1968); and “The use of trees and shrubs in the dry country of Australia” (Hall et al. 1972), provided the knowledge basis for more intensive use of eucalypts also in Australia; yet, it would take many years before action in the country caught up with the scale of eucalypt planting in other countries.

In response to the World Seed Year, the second edition of the FAO Tree Seed Directory was issued in 1961 (FAO 1961a; see also FAO 1958a, 1975b; and ICRAF 1986,1997, for other editions of Forest Seed Directories). Things were moving, and seed and genetic improvement started being a well-known field of discussion in national and international fora, culminating in the FAO/IUFRO World Consultations on Forest Tree Breeding held in Stockholm in 1963, Washington D.C. 1969, and Canberra 1977 (FAO 1963, 1964; FAO 1969, 1970; FAO 1977, 1979). A fourth tree breeding Conference was organized by IUFRO in Beijing in 1998 (Matyas 1999).

Activities related to seed certification were also energetically discussed, however, progress was slow and continues to be less than adequate even today in many countries. A forest seed certificate form was adopted as early as 1951 by the FAO Conference. Some further elaborated forms and related guidance, were later published as an annex to the FAO Handbook, “Handling Forest Tree Seed” (FAO 1955), and in Unasylva (Morandini 1961). Matthews, who reviewed progress in forest tree seed certification in 30 countries in a paper presented at the First World Consultation on Forest Tree Breeding in 1963, noted that, in spite of the obvious advantages to both suppliers and purchasers, only a handful of countries, and only Mexico in the developing world, had adopted forest tree seed certification. He noted that the effectiveness of implementation of such schemes depended on efficient but flexible and functional supervision and inspection of seed imports and exports, which at the time was largely lacking (FAO 1963; Matthews 1963). This brings, to me, visions of today’s situation, in spite of efforts such as e.g. the organization of a IUFRO coordinated meeting in the subject in 1992 (KEFRI/GTZ/IUFRO 1992).

In the late 1960s, the potential of other Australian tree genera, in addition to eucalypts, was increasingly recognised. With the encouragement of the FAO Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, the charter of what had become known as the Australian Tree Seed Centre (ATSC), was expanded to include other native genera of woody plants, both trees and shrubs (Drielsma et al. 1997; Anon 2002e,f). At the same time the demand for eucalypt seed continued to increase sharply. The 4th Session of the FAO Forest Gene Panel, in 1977, “noted the large demand for seed of eucalypts in certain of countries, notably Brazil, which was importing many tons of seed each year, not only from Australia, but also from countries in Africa in which eucalypts were grown as exotics” (FAO 1968-2002). Political pressure behind the large Brazilian tree planting programme, which was supported by vigorous fiscal incentives, was massive, and this, at times, led to some policy level friction related to (physical) availability and cost of seed.

The ATSC’s collection of tree seed has grown over the years to include a wide range of multipurpose trees of Australian origin (Vercoe and Midgley 1993). In 1998 the Centre was reported to hold about 30 000 accessions comprising 1 200 species, from several thousand collection sites (Midgley 1999). Eucalypts made up about one half of the species in the collections, while other genera represented included Acacia, Casuarina, Grevillea, Melaleuca, Sesbania and Terminalia. Most accessions came from natural populations but the Centre was also establishing and managing an expanding network of seed orchards, as had been originally foreseen in the 1950s. The Centre responded to over 2 500 requests per year, about half of which came from countries outside of Australia. With support from the ATSC, base populations for breeding purposes had also been established in other countries for E. globulus, E. nitens, E. grandis, E. pellita, Acacia mangium, A. auriculiformis, A. crassicarpa and many other species (Anon 1988, 2002f).

Overall, according to records, a total of more than 250 000 seedlots have been despatched to growers in Australia and to over 150 countries throughout the world. Seed collection and despatch have continued to be core functions of the ATSC, along with the provision of information about the woody component of Australia’s plant biological diversity; research on genetic diversity; and training, as recommended already by the 1st World Consultation on Forest Tree Breeding in Stockholm in 1963 (Anon 2002e,f).

The ATSC presently maintains a useful and widely consulted database of field trials of Australian species. Growth data from these trials are stored in the “TREDAT” centralised performance register, linking growth measurements to site, management and seedlot origin (Anon 2002f). Following early work by FAO expert Lamberto Golfari and his team in Brazil in the 1970s, in which bioclimatic maps were prepared to support species introductions (Golfari et al.1978), work has been pursued in CSIRO by Trevor Booth and colleagues to map regions climatically suitable for Australian tree species at the global scale, using new, computerized methods of climatic analysis (Booth 1991). This work is of great help to countries in the testing of species and provenances for future use.

The ATSC, which originally was attached to the Forest Research Institute of the Australian Forestry and Timber Bureau, became part of the Division of Forest Research of the CSIRO in 1975. With this move the Seed Section of the new Division continued its traditional exploration and seed collection activities. Its stated aims were, “to provide a seed supply service, with particular emphasis on Australian tree seeds for research, and to act as the national seed coordinating centre for Australia” (Anon 2002f).

In 1983, following several periods of short-term funding from the Australian bilateral aid agency, AIDAB, for collecting and distributing seed for specific purposes in bilateral programme countries, AIDAB - later AusAID- commenced the Seeds of Australian Trees Project (SAT), managed by the ATSC. The project aimed to facilitate seed distribution to developing countries collaborating in Australian bilateral programmes (Anon 1988). The SAT Project, and other projects financed by AusAID and ACIAR, soon became a main focus and the core of the international part of the work of the ATSC, and only limited collections were made to replenish general seed stocks (Drielsma et al. 1997).

Priorities shifted also on the international scene. Since the establishment of the FAO Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources in 1968, the contributions made towards seed collection and distribution from FAO’s Regular Programme in the biennium 1968-1969, included support to two national institutes, one of which was Australia; in the “golden years”, between 1985 and 1995, such support was provided by FAO to between 15 and 25 institutes. These institutes gradually included a growing number of partners in developing countries, and such traditional Australian seed collection partners as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. In the second part of the 1990s, support to seed collection and distribution for experimental purposes and conservation, gave way to other priorities. Added emphasis was being placed on the testing, use and development of local species in developing countries; this grossly increased the number of species actually or potentially included in genetic management programmes, and - by necessity - implied a shift to providing support to developing countries in prioritizing target species and genetic resource activities at national, sub-regional and regional levels as a basic, fundamental, first step in such an effort. Prior to such a shift, the list of priority species pin-pointed for attention had symptomatically grown from 4 pages -in large font- in the Report on the First Session of the Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, in 1986, to a daunting 70, tightly printed pages, in the Report on the 6th Session, in 1985 (FAO 1968-2002). FAO and CSIRO, subsequently, joined forces in supporting regional forest genetic resources workshops to help countries prioritize species and activities, and to draw up coherent action programmes, such as the one prepared in a workshop held in April 1999 by countries in the South Pacific (Sigaud et al. 1999; FAO 2001f).

Added attention to the use of local tree species was also evident in Australia, the traditional “Radiata Pine Country”, and support to Australian growers in the use of Australian species, has been over the past years increasingly stressed in the work programme of the ATSC. Recent activities have included, i.a. contractual work undertaken by the ATSC for Sydney Water, involving collection, storage and testing of seed of a range of species for re-vegetation work, from trees to grasses. The ATSC has, accordingly, expanded its species coverage and know-how to include also non-woody species (Anon 2002f). In 1996, the Federal Government of Australia and the Australian industry, adopted a plan for trebling the Australian forest plantation resource to 3 million hectares by 2020, implying an increase in annual planting rate from 25 000 ha/an, to 80 000 ha/an (“The 2020 Vision”). Much of this new plantation resource will be based on Australian tree species, and strong support from the CSIRO and the ATSC is both a necessity and an expectation (Drielsma et al. 1997; Anon 2002f; Vercoe and Clarke 2002).

In addition to geographical and species shifts, there has been over the past years, increasing emphasis on the business nature of the ATSC. While the Seed Centre, for some time already, has had to “earn its own living” through grants programmes, projects and commercial scale seed sales, recent moves by decision makers in Australia and at the CSIRO are aimed to make an overall, significant corporate shift from a “CSIRO Research Institute” to “ CSIRO Research Enterprise”, under the slogan, “Forestry is a Global Business”. The underlying philosophy is that, in order to deliver outcomes for Australia, the CSIRO, the Division of Forestry and Forest Products, and the ATSC, need to be positioned as “global players”, with focus on “strategic partnerships and operational efficiency” (Anon 2002f). Less philanthropy, more business, in tune with today’s world?

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