Native seed production areas: what they are, why we need them

A pair of gloved hands hold some branchlets cut from a native shrub, on which seed capsules are visible.

Seed production areas could be the solution to Australia’s native seed supply gap. Photo: Jesse Collins.

Australia needs a healthy native seed sector to reach its ecosystem restoration goals. But extensive degradation of this continent’s native vegetation communities over the past 200 years means the rising demand for native seed is unable to be sustainability met through wild harvest alone.

Establishing bigger and better native seed production areas (SPAs) has been identified as a potential practical solution to problems such as the low diversity of available species, seasonal variability in the amount of seed available, and genetic bottlenecking.

So what exactly is a SPA, why do we need them, what’s the current state of SPAs in Australia, and what do we need SPAs to look like in the future? Read on.

A series of raised planters are in the foreground, planted with native species. A green shadehouse is visible in the background.

Native seed production areas come in many shapes and sizes. Photo: Toby Peet.

What is a SPA?

A Seed Production Area (SPA) is a parcel of land planted with species for the purpose of producing seed.

In this article we are talking about restoration-focused SPAs, that is, purposeful plantings of Australian native species designed to produce seed with equivalent or higher genetic diversity than that found in wild populations – that is, seed suitable for use in revegetation or restoration projects.

We are not talking about seed orchards or forestry-related SPAs, where plants are bred and selected to produce seed for commercial traits (e.g. faster growth rates, wood quality).

In restoration-focused seed production areas, seed is produced with the goal of capturing a broad base of genetic diversity, required for establishing healthy and viable natural populations.

By borrowing innovative techniques from horticulture and agriculture, native plants can be ‘farmed’ for seed crops, producing higher quantities of quality seed than can be sustainably collected from the wild.

An aerial view of a newly established seed production area.

Native seed production areas, like this one being developed in Western Australia, can be set up to grow genetically diverse native seed suitable for revegetation and restoration projects. Photo: Jesse Collins.

A SPA needs just a small amount of source seed from a range of genetically appropriate remnant populations to produce and grow plants. These multiple sources then cross-pollinate and produce genetically diverse seed. This seed is harvested, cleaned, and can be put back into cleared landscapes.

SPAs are a very important sustainable source of seed for restoration and help protect key biodiversity assets from harvesting pressure and unsustainable use.

Why do we need SPAs?

Most of Australia’s native seed supply still comes from wild harvest. We need SPAs because in many parts of Australia where ecosystems most need help, there are only small and fragmented pockets of intact original native vegetation from which to harvest seed.

Sustainably harvesting from these remnant patches can be unpredictable and time-consuming. Some areas are barely able to regenerate themselves, let alone provide enough seed to rebuild the biodiversity that has been lost – leading to a risk of overharvesting vulnerable areas.

Even in a suitably large and accessible area of remnant bushland, the quantity and quality of seed available to collect will vary widely year-on-year, depending on conditions such as rainfall, average temperatures, and the availability of pollinators.

Two men stand under a eucalypt tree, using pole saws to cut branchlets with gum nuts.

Wild harvest of native seed varies widely from season to season. Photo: Jesse Collins.

Done well, SPAs can help sidestep these issues and others associated with wild harvest – such as genetic bottlenecking and an overall lack of variety in the range of species available.

SPAs can also help overcome seed limitations for species that are critically important for biodiversity or ecosystem function in particular vegetation communities, but very difficult to collect from wild populations or which have extremely variable supply.

What does Australia’s SPA scene look like now?

Even though SPAs could help overcome Australia’s native seed supply issues, they remain relatively uncommon, and there’s a lack of guidelines, standards, and evidence-based practical knowledge on how to establish and manage highly effective SPAs.

That’s because traditionally, the bulk of the demand for native seed came from government land restoration and mining rehabilitation projects. This demand has not been consistent or advanced enough to set up agricultural-style native seed production, with seed sales barely covering SPA costs.

A man uses a pitchfork to shift native grass material on a conveyer belt.

Consistent, reliable demand is needed to make the establishment of native seed production areas economically viable. Photo: Nick Wood.

Most SPAs operating today were established with government funding and are managed by not-for-profit organisations.

A recent survey of SPAs across Australia found most are smaller than five hectares (ha). Just six percent were in the 31–100 ha size range, and no SPAs above 100 ha. An Audit of Seed Production Areas in NSW found that sites smaller than two hectares were too small to be cost effective.

Historically, the contribution of SPAs to the national seed market has been small (an estimated 5.5 tonnes of seed per year), but this is growing, with the Australian Native Seed Survey Report 2020 estimating that 33% of seed purchasers source seed from SPAs.

Why do we need to think bigger for SPAs? What does the future for SPAs look like?

Now three years into the Decade for Ecosystem Restoration, and as signatories to global goals and targets addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, a wave of demand for nature-based solutions is building and Australia’s native seed sector is needing to rapidly evolve on multiple fronts.

A man stands at the back of a tractor, pouring seed from a large bin into a seeding machine.

Seed supply from SPAs is a small but growing component of the national seed market – with goals for carbon sequestration and reversing biodiversity, this needs to increase rapidly. Credit Jesse Collins.

Without significant investment in seed infrastructure, technology and working capital, efforts to ramp up conservation and restoration of our unique ecosystems will quickly become limited by a shortage in quality, diverse native seed.

Whether it is getting the amount of seed required to improve biodiversity outcomes, mitigate climate change through environmental carbon plantings, or assist the recovery of communities from disasters such as fire and flood – native seed production areas can play an important role in improving seed supply chains.

We need to think bigger when it comes to SPAs, because more native seeds and a better managed and coordinated sector will enable Australia to ‘build back better’, using climate-adjusted seed in restoration to support more diverse, resilient landscapes and biodiversity.

The environmental opportunity is clear, but SPAs also represent a social and economic opportunity, for example for First Nations led enterprises to build intergenerational wealth for communities while doing vital work to help restore Country, as well as for regional communities and landholders to explore new income streams from managing land for seed production.

A hand holds a large seed capsule, which has split open. Beside the capsule lying on the person's palm is the seed that was inside the capsule.

There are significant social and economic opportunities for First Nations leadership in native seed production. Photo: Badgebup Aboriginal Corporation & Push Consulting.

Greening Australia is leading a five-year collaborative research project funded by The Ian Potter Foundation to plug key knowledge gaps and make it easier to establish and manage native seed production areas. This research aims to help develop practical and innovative science and integrate this into SPA production.

By developing standards for seed produced in SPAs, we can ensure we are developing seed supplies that will restore ecosystems with as much or even higher diversity than many remnants in the wild.

All we need is the seed and some determination, and we can make a huge difference to the richness and resilience of Australian landscapes.
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