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 and investment since the early 2000s.
This has changed as after devastating bushfires swept through Australia’s landscapes in late 2019 and early 2020, 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 bushfire response agenda – in order to prepare for landscape restoration and improve investability in the sector for future capability.
While those Summer bushfires were still raging, Project Phoenix was established – a project coordinated by Greening Australia on behalf of the Native seed and plant sector and backed by $5m from the Commonwealth’s Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery fund. Project Phoenix is bringing scientists, Indigenous communities, seed practitioners and other stakeholders together from around the country with the goal of working together to find solutions, to bring investment in the sector and make it more sustainable.
An issue of demand
The bulk of the demand for native seed currently lies with government land restoration and mining rehabilitation projects. But this demand isn’t consistent enough to sustain the sector alone, and lead times on big orders are often too short to collect or plant with confidence.
Project Phoenix is exploring other demand sources such as privately funded large-scale restoration work, carbon sequestration projects and opportunities in emerging markets such as bush foods.
Sector co-ordination will be a key component of a more sustainable and sophisticated sector where seed demand is more visible to seed practitioners, seed supply is more visible to seed buyers and timelines allow businesses to invest and grow.
It’s not sustainable for the industry to rely so heavily on individual orders. Forward-ordering from seed buyers would improve small business outcomes. Ordering in advance hedges the buyer against volatility too. If seed suppliers knew what the big buyers needed in advance, then they could not only collect sustainably over time, but could also start producing seeds through Seed Production Areas. This would allow the bulking up of seed without increasing pressure on remnant areas. This process could also enable strategic reserves of seed to be developed for future bushfire responses.
Most of Australia’s seed is collected directly from the wild. This is partly because there isn’t enough demand to set up agricultural-style production – similar to how Aquaculture has balanced sea fishing with controlled fish farming.
There is a lot of risk in collecting native seed from small isolated patches of native vegetation including the risk of collecting seed of low genetic diversity and also of negatively impacting the sustainability of natural ecosystems. Project Phoenix will undertake a national review of land access for native seed collection across public and private land. The aim is to spark a conversation about managed access to large scale diverse remnants to improve biodiversity outcomes.
If we create consistent demand for native seed, we can unlock new income streams for landholders around the country by incentivising them to manage land for seed collection or to commercially produce native seed. Reinstating native vegetation on vacant or cleared land would increase biodiversity and would also ensure ongoing supplies of native species for future seed collection and restoration initiatives.