Review highlights problems in the supply of quality tree seeds and seedlings

Nurseries of Excellence_sm_JR

Farmer group nursery in Aceh, Indonesia, part of the Nurseries of Excellence project. Photo: J Roshetko

If you’re going to invest in agroforestry, then you want to be sure the tree seeds or seedlings you plant are high quality and suitable to local growing conditions. You would want the trees to grow well and provide you with maximum benefit, such as a generous supply of fruit or timber, shade for your livestock or erosion control.

However, it seems that the systems across the developing world that supply quality germplasm – that is, seeds, seedlings, cuttings or other propagules – are severely lacking. This is according to a review of tree seed and seedling supply systems in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America published in the scientific journal, Small-scale Forestry.

James M Roshetko, Senior Scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre and co-author of the review, says the general lack of awareness about what constitutes quality tree germplasm is alarming and few policy regulations are in place to ensure only quality germplasm enters the market.

“Low quality planting material ultimately affects the survival of trees and the effectiveness of agroforestry and tree planting initiatives,” explains Roshetko. “The value of using high quality germplasm needs to be demonstrated and farmers and policy makers made aware of this.”

The review found common issues across the regions, including that sources of germplasm are not well documented, quality control systems are weak (especially in African countries) and tree germplasm production statistics are not available. Dealers and nursery operators are faced with limited markets, a lack of technical information and capacity, and limited access to high quality germplasm.

Isaac Nyoka, lead author of the review and Scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre, says there is an urgent need to develop germplasm production and supply strategies that result in win-win situations for farmers, suppliers and the environment.

“Quality seeds and seedlings need to be widely accessible and affordable, and they need to be highly productive,” explains Nyoka. “We also need a greater diversity of species of wider genetic diversity.”

The review highlights how nurseries in Africa, Asia and to some extent Latin America, only produce a limited number of tree species. Malawi has a mean of 4 species per nursery, while in Mexico only 2 species are being grown. In Indonesia, just 3 species accounted for 70 to 85 per cent of the total seed sold in 2001.

Nyoka believes this does not reflect the species desired by farmers, rather it reflects the limited access of nursery operators to germplasm from a range of species. It could also be the case that external projects may unduly influence nursery production by emphasizing (or creating demand) for only a few species.

Of concern also is the limited genetic diversity being used. Recommended practices for tree seed collection in forests, plantations and seed orchards are not being widely followed. A study of 71 nurseries in East Africa found that for each tree species, the seed used in nurseries were only collected from a mean of 6 mother trees. In 22 per cent of cases, the seed was from a single mother tree. This was also observed in Malawi.

Although the statistics vary from country to country, the review shows that a large portion of tree seeds are being collected from remnant trees on farmland. Ramni Jamnadass, co-author and head of research into Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery with the World Agroforestry Centre, says this practice is likely to erode the genetic diversity within species.

Another worrying practice in many parts of Africa is the planting of species in areas where growing conditions may not be suitable, resulting in limited survival or productivity of the trees established.

Perum Perhutani official_sm_JR

An official from Perum Perhutani (government forest company) discusses the impact of teak seed quality on tree survival, growth and yield in Central Java, Indonesia. Photo: J Roshetko

The relative merits of different nursery types are evaluated in the review: state-run, private, community/farmer group and individual. State run nurseries may be efficient and able to produce quality planting material but they are often centrally located and face difficulties with distribution. Community nurseries provide an environment for learning and exchange of ideas and information but they serve a limited area and are not efficient in terms of the number of seedlings produced per group member.

The review says small-scale nurseries could benefit from improved access to up-to-date information, new and affordable technologies, access to high quality germplasm and enhanced skills in nursery and financial management.

The review shows how seed collection and distribution systems work in several countries, with farmers collecting seed which then goes to dealers, suppliers or distributors (some government, some private) and on to users that include government, NGOs, farmers and private forest companies.

Asia has the largest market for tree seeds and seedling, due in part to large-scale afforestation and reforestation programs. In Africa, the market is made up primarily of smallholder farmers, making it difficult to establish viable seed or seedling supply enterprises as the demand is usually for small quantities. In some cases, where NGOs or governments provide free germplasm, this can undermine entrepreneurs and be an impediment to establishing sustainable markets.

“It is important to establish stable markets for germplasm because they offer opportunities for farmers and other suppliers to earn income,” says Roshetko. In Central Java, Indonesia, some farm families are earning 66 per cent of their dry season (3 month) income through supplying tree seeds.

There is very little information on tree seed production and trade in developing countries, unlike other agricultural commodities. The review recommends that countries develop systems to better estimate tree germplasm demand and supply to enable germplasm suppliers to make informed decisions.

One market that is operating effectively is in Cambodia, where, communities manage seed sources and collect and sell seeds. The private sector links seed communities to users through the market and the government’s Forestry Administration provides the relevant legal framework and certification role. This model draws on the strength of village seed supply systems and private and central government partnership.

In most countries, however, the supply of quality tree germplasm is hindered by weak policies and lack of awareness among buyers of the importance of quality. There are few effective certification schemes in the regions reviewed, either compulsory or voluntary.

Some exceptions do exist, such as Rwanda which has developed national regulations based on OECD certification. In the Philippines, only accredited fruit tree nurseries can supply seedlings to government programs. These nurseries receive free training and access to high quality materials. Studies have also shown that branding nurseries can have a huge impact on both the seedling quality and the demand, such as was seen by the World Agroforestry Centre’s Nurseries of Excellence initiative in Indonesia.


Download the full article:

Nyoka BI, Roshetko J, Jamnadass R, Muriuki J, Kalinganire A, Lillesø J-P B, Beedy T and Cornelius J (2014). Tree Seed and Seedling Supply Systems: A Review of the Asia, Africa and Latin America Models. Small-scale Forestry.

Related stories:

How much do rural communities really benefit from trees?

Low genetic diversity hampers restoration efforts

Download the booklet:

Falling by the Wayside: Improving the availability of high-quality tree seeds and seedlings would benefit hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers

Related research:

Roshetko, JM, N Idris, P Purnomosidhi, T Zulfadhli, and J Tarigan. 2013. Farmer extension approach to rehabilitate smallholder fruit agroforestry systems: the “Nurseries of excellence (NOEL)” program in Aceh, Indonesia. Acta Hort 975: IV International Symposium on Tropical and Subtropical Fruits.

Roshetko JM, Mulawarman and A Dianarto. 2008. Tree Seed Procurement-Diffusion Pathways in Wonogiri and Ponorogo, Java. Small-scale Forestry 7:333-352.'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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