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Economies of seed: Scaling up our native seed sector

What’s holding Australia’s native seed sector back?

When vast landscapes are affected as severely as they were in Australia’s recent bushfires, there are times when more is needed than natural recovery.

In order to return landscapes to their previous state, you need to get a genetically appropriate supply of local seeds back into the landscape – a diverse variety that are resilient against future disasters and can support recovery.

But typically, you can’t just buy these native seeds off the shelf.

After the Black Summer fires, recovery efforts in some areas have been difficult due to a lack of viable native seed supply. This shows a clear need for stronger seed supply chains and potential seed reserves to enable an adequate response to disasters like these in the future. But with this increased demand from such a small sector comes the risk of over-harvesting or depleting our healthy natural stores.

Without native seed, we wouldn’t have the flora and fauna that is an integral part of the Australian landscape. So how do we take what we need without harming what’s left?

A grassroots industry

Native seed collection is incredibly complex, and most seed is collected directly from the wild. Australia’s native species are location-specific, and many have dormancy characteristics which make them unsuitable for planting at scale. It’s a fine art when it comes to genetics – for example, you must know how many areas to harvest from in order to avoid inbreeding, but not so large that you risk outbreeding.

When done sustainably, the collection process can take several years, and Australia’s collectors are mostly grassroots practitioners – sole traders, hobbyists and small businesses. Only a few agricultural-scale enterprises exist.

Unfortunately, collectors don’t often receive enough forward warning of upcoming requirements.

Everyday demand for native seed is still relatively low, with infrequent Government restoration and mining rehabilitation projects the main purchaser. Without a pipeline of steady orders to prepare for, collectors must work reactively, to supply short term projects with significant amounts of seed to meet urgent orders. This could create unintended impacts. It also leaves our environment a lot more susceptible to the increased risks of climate change.

Can’t we just farm it?

It’s a good question, and one that Project Phoenix is exploring. Industries like Aquaculture have successfully balanced out fishing with farming to improve both the quality and supply of large-scale orders, while conserving wild populations.

Production of native seed could unlock a new income stream for landholders around the country if they’re able to plant and harvest on vacant or cleared land. Revegetating these areas would also help improve biodiversity and soil productivity on what would be wasted fields. And it would give seed practitioners better control over quality and genetics.

But unlike fish that can be grown in multiple locations, native seed can only be grown in areas where that seed naturally occurs and will be used. Again, if we had a bigger pipeline of orders, suppliers could produce location-specific seeds at an industrial volume, potentially even with reserves.

Regions like North America rely on these ‘banks’ of seed reserves to help respond to bushfires or other disasters of scale. But they’re only able to do that with extensive funding, a robust market and transparent demand.

To help converse wild populations and their genetic diversity, we need stronger, more enforceable regulations, as is the case in any agricultural field. These regulations must consider practitioners of all sizes, and incentivise people to collect or produce sustainably.

Flora for all

Although seed science has come a long way in recent years, there is also still much we don’t know about Australia’s native plants. That’s exciting for academia, but not helpful when you’re trying to help bushfire-impacted landscapes recover today.

We need a better understanding of our plant genetics and ecology to improve reliability of supply and protect our plants for the future. Climate change has also left a lot of volatility and shortfalls, with so many species and collection areas already destroyed.

Currently, this understanding is often held in lecture halls and not shared widely enough among the sector. Centralisation of knowledge would go a long way in creating a cohesive sector, enabling practitioners to do their job without harming the environment and ensuring that everyone’s voices were heard.

Project Phoenix

Over its 16-month life-cycle, Project Phoenix aims to address some of the immediate native seed priorities following the fires, such as collecting from identified threatened species and undertaking critical steps in the capacity building and mobilisation of the sector.

This includes:

  • Working with a broad range of stakeholders, including local communities, Indigenous groups, environmental and natural resource organisations, government, fire agencies, regulators, land managers and seed businesses
  • Developing a 10-year strategy for the future design and success of the sector.

Read more about Project Phoenix