Forest genetic resources


Forest genetic resources are the heritable materials maintained within and among tree and other woody plant species (shrubs, palms and bamboo) that are of actual or potential economic, environmental, scientific or societal value. Trees are the foundation species of forest ecosystems and many of the world’s 60 000 tree species are also an important component in other ecosystems, such as savannas and agricultural landscapes. Forests and trees provide goods and services which are essential for human well-being and sustainable development. The genetic resources of trees and other woody plant species underpin the supply of these goods and services.

Most tree species have high levels of genetic diversity, offering great opportunities for growing, selecting and breeding trees for various purposes, ranging from the production of wood and non-wood forest products to the provision of environmental services. Tree improvement can increase productivity up to 60 percent depending on the targeted products and species. However, these opportunities remain largely untapped. According to The State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources (FAO 2014), only about 730 species are included in tree improvement programmes and approximately 2 400 species are actively managed for products or services.

Genetic diversity is the ultimate source of biological diversity and it is also crucial for the vitality of forests and their adaptation to climate change. Moreover, genetic diversity provides resilience in relation to stress factors, such as pests and diseases. Genetic aspects should thus be taken into account while managing existing forests and establishing new ones, in particularly in the selection and production of seed and other reproductive material for reforestation and restoration.

The preferred method for conserving forest genetic resources is in situ conservation, which is a dynamic approach that maintains evolutionary processes within tree populations. In situ conservation of forest genetic resources is typically carried out in forests managed for multiple purposes and protected areas. Ex situ conservation of forest genetic resources in seed banks, field collections, breeding populations and provenance trials, for example, is a necessary complement to in situ conservation, especially when population size is critically low in the wild.

The importance of forest genetic resources is often poorly recognized in national (or subnational) policies and strategies on forests, biodiversity and climate change. To address this shortcoming, it is recommended that countries analyze systematically the contributions of forest genetic resources to sustainable forest management, biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation and mitigation. Based on this analysis, it is further recommended that countries prepare a specific national (or subnational) strategy on forest genetic resources and also establish a national coordination mechanism for the related work. This can be done without duplicating efforts, either as part of, or in close collaboration with, relevant existing policies and mechanisms.

FAO’s work on forest genetic resources form an integral part of the FAO Forestry Programme, and contribute to FAO’s efforts to realize its Strategic Objective 2 to “make agriculture, forestry and fisheries more productive and sustainable”. The work on forest genetic resources was initiated in the 1950s and ever since, FAO has supported countries in their efforts to improve the management of these resources and promoted regional and international cooperation on forest genetic resources. Currently, the priority areas for this work are:

  • Improving the availability of, and access to, information on forest genetic resources
  • Conservation of forest genetic resources (in situ and ex situ)
  • Sustainable use, development and management of forest genetic resources
  • Policies, institutions and capacity-building