A seed, an orchard invisible…but what kind of orchard?

Improving the availability of high-quality tree seeds and seedlings to benefit hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers around the world.

A farmer chooses a variety of maize. He prepares his land, sows the crop and waits. Come harvest time, the variety he has chosen fails to do well and the yields are poor. The year is  wasted, but never mind. It is just one year. Now, imagine that what he planted was not maize but a fruit tree that yields in eight years. That’s right. It will be eight years before he realises that he has chosen the wrong variety of trees. Eight wasted years. This is the truth on the ground for tens of millions of farmers around the world. They are failing to realize the full potential of agroforestry because they are using sub-standard seeds or seedlings.

The Welsh say, “A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.”  The quality of the orchard, however, depends on the quality of the seed.

In many parts of the world, agroforestry is transforming the lives of rural communities. Species such as rubber, cocoa, mango and teak are major cash crops. Nitrogen-fixing trees improve soil fertility; fodder trees improve milk yields; and trees provide fuelwood, fruits, fibre, medicines and much else. In Asia and Latin America, as in Africa, farmers use the profits from  agroforestry to improve their homesteads, invest in their land, take advantage of modern healthcare and ensure that their children get a decent education.

Agroforestry can only achieve its full potential, however, if farmers can access high-quality tree seeds and seedlings. Every year, tens of millions of farmers in the developing world sow tree seeds and plant tree seedlings of poor and variable quality. Existing systems for collecting and distributing tree seeds and seedlings have failed to provide smallholders with high-quality planting material. According to Ramni Jamnadass, global leader of the World Agroforestry Centre’s research programme on domestication and superior germplasm, “What farmers need is a system which provides high-quality planting material, at an affordable price, near where they live.”

Most national tree seed centres in the developing world have two roles: they sell seeds, and they advise government on legal aspects of seed supply. This creates a conflict of interest, as there is a danger that they will favour legislation that furthers their own commercial ends and discriminates against private-sector entrepreneurs. Instead national tree seed centres  hould embrace knowledge brokering and training roles; identify quality seed sources for smallholders; provide advice on establishing such seed sources; and promote efficient distribution systems. NGOs should support small-scale entrepreneurs, for example by providing business training to seed dealers and nurseries, and by buying seedlings from entrepreneurs.

Such reforms need to be accompanied by research. Over the past two decades, the World Agroforestry Centre and Forest & Landscape Denmark (FLD, University of Copenhagen) have conducted research on tree seed and seedling supply systems, devising solutions that could dramatically improve the quality of planting material—and the livelihoods of millions of  farmers. These include the introduction of certification systems appropriate to developing countries, rethinking the role of national tree seed centres, and introducing measures that  enable the private sector to play a more prominent role in the sale and distribution of seeds and seedlings. Working in this way to improve smallholder systems and markets, with a focus on the productivity and sustainability of forestry and agroforestry, is a key focus of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry.

Even so, our understanding of the factors that contribute to the success of seeds and seedlings systems remains partial. At present, most nurseries are simply selling enough seeds to survive, and paying little attention to quality. If we’re going to create an efficient, decentralized seeds and seedlings system, then we need to gain a much better understanding of precisely what is needed to create the best nurseries. Scientists still need to determine the factors influencing the performance of nurseries: information about quality, access to good seed
sources of a range of species, business knowledge about how to run a nursery, and knowledge about markets.

Research goes hand-in-hand with investment. Says Ramni Jamnadass: Without significant investment, we are unlikely to see a dramatic increase in the breeding, production and dissemination of high-quality seeds and seedlings of the many agroforestry species that have the potential to improve the livelihoods and incomes of smallholder farmers throughout the tropics.

Condensed from Falling by the wayside: improving the availability of high-quality tree seeds and seedlings would benefit hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers, by Charlie Pye-Smith.


Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on r.selvarajah@cgiar.org

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