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Project Phoenix: maturing the native seed sector

Native seed is on the national environmental agenda. But there are issues in demand, and regulating supply. What can we do about it?

Regrowth in burnt landscapes – Dargen, NSW

Over the past 20 years, Australia’s seed economy has seen very little evolution. Despite its vital role in conserving our environment, the sector has faced infrequent demand, unsustainable collection methods and a lack of governance since the early 2000s. But there’s nothing like an environmental catastrophe to kickstart much-needed action.

After devastating bushfires swept through Australia’s landscapes earlier this year, it was clear that our native seed sector did not have the capacity to respond to disasters like this at speed or at scale. For the first time, seed was made a national priority on the environmental agenda – in order to urgently reinstate native vegetation and improve investability in the sector for future capability.

While the Black Summer bushfires were still raging, Project Phoenix was established – a project coordinated by Greening Australia and backed by $5m from the Commonwealth’s Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery fund. The program is bringing scientists, Indigenous communities, seed practitioners and stakeholders together from around the country with the goal of understanding what barriers the sector faces, and what exactly is required to make the sector sustainable.

An issue of demand

At the moment, demand for seed currently lies with government land restoration and mining rehabilitation projects. But this demand isn’t frequent enough to sustain the sector alone, and lead times on big orders are also too short to collect or plant with confidence.

As part of Project Phoenix, we’re exploring where new orders could come from – such as large-scale restoration work, carbon sequestration projects, bush foods and more strongly-regulated government and mining projects.

It’s not sustainable for the industry to rely so heavily on individual orders. To offer an example, every time a big order is made for acacia seed, acacia prices skyrocket, and collectors rush to harvest acacia seeds thinking they’ll make a healthy profit. But with this new oversupply, prices then plummet. Each time we raid trees for an inordinate amount of seed to meet an urgent order, we also impact habitat for birds, the soil bank, and the genetic strength of that species.

The real secret lies in forward-ordering. If we knew what the big buyers needed in advance, then suppliers could not only collect sustainably over time, but also start planting and producing seeds at an industrial volume, potentially even with reserves.

Ordering in advance hedges the buyer against volatility too. Think about if you need an obscure ingredient from the grocer, like watercress or tarragon. It’s unlikely to be waiting fresh on the shelves every time you walk into the supermarket. But if you phone ahead, you ensure the supply of a quality product.

Regulating supply

Most of Australia’s seed is collected directly from the wild. This is partly because species are notoriously hard to grow outside of their natural range, but also because there isn’t enough demand to set up agricultural-style production – similar to how Aquaculture has balanced out sea fishing with controlled fish farms.

There is a lot of genetic risk in collecting from the wild, both in terms of harvesting unviable seeds and in terms of protecting the gene pool that remains. If we solidify demand for the sector, we can unlock a new income stream for landholders around the country by incentivising them to produce native seed. Planting and harvesting seed on vacant or cleared land would increase biodiversity and improve soil productivity on those farms, while securing a more resilient and quality-controlled supply for Australia.

Seed production area Western Sydney

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

The fact that seed isn’t a consumer-facing product makes all of these conversations tricky. The market is often unwilling to pay for true cost of collection or production because they just don’t understand its complexity – unlike the immediacy of a fish on your plate.

But these are the types of questions that Project Phoenix is aiming to answer. A mature and sustainable seed sector is the only way we will make restoration goals achievable at scales. It will also create regional jobs and economic benefits for the entire Australian community.

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