Tree-planting goals undermine the forest for the lack of diverse, good-quality seeds

Ambitious plans by India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to restore tens of millions of hectares of degraded land by 2030 could be derailed by a lack of good-quality and genetically diverse native seeds, according to a new study.

planted mangrove seedlings
Planted mangrove seedling. Image: Hannah 50, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ambitious targets by Asian countries to restore tens of millions of hectares of degraded land by 2030 could be foiled by one fundamental problem: a lack of good-quality and genetically diverse native seeds, according to new research.

Researchers, who published their study in the journal Diversity last month, surveyed tree restoration practitioners from India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to understand gaps between national policies and on-the-ground work.

They found bold country-level commitments and hundreds of millions of dollars invested in restoration programs — but also a third of practitioners regularly planting seedlings of unknown origins, which can lead to swaths planted in unsuitable conditions and dying without ever growing into resilient forests.

“This lack of awareness indicates there’s a lot of emphasis on planting the trees, but not monitoring and measuring their survival in the long term,” Ennia Bosshard, first author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Exeter, U.K., told Mongabay.

The bulk of the problem lies with fragmented national seed systems that are unable to deliver sufficient quantities of good-quality seeds of diverse species and provenances, according to the study. Provenance, or where a seed is sourced from, influences the conditions it requires to thrive.

That could result in “reforested” areas more akin to low-biodiversity tree plantations than thriving, natural forest ecosystems. The former would not only struggle to adapt to the changing climate over the coming decades, but also fail to deliver promised socioeconomic and environmental benefits. At worst, only a limited number of trees might survive.

“It is such a shame … so much money and effort go into restoration but after several decades, they [might still] not be able to successfully create a forest with the ecosystem functions and services needed,” Bosshard said.

Seed systems in Asia ‘in an embryonic stage’

After rampant deforestation in the last few decades, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have marked out ambitious restoration goals over the next 10 years.

This is despite the fact that the countries are still “in an embryonic stage” of transitioning their seed systems to be fit for purpose, said Christopher Kettle, co-author of the study and an ecologist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT based in Italy.

Malaysia has pledged to plant 100 million trees by 2025, while India has committed to restoring 26 million hectares (64 million acres) of degraded land by 2030. Altogether, restoration goals for the four countries add up to a combined 47.5 million hectares (117 million acres) by 2030, which would require a total of 157 billion seeds, the study estimated.

Current seed systems won’t be able to meet this demand. In the study, roughly half of practitioners reported “always” or “often” facing challenges such as procuring good-quality seeds, seeds of preferred provenances, and seeds at regular timings.

“There have been piecemeal investments in small-scale nurseries through NGOs … but substantial planning and financial and human resources are needed to scale [seed systems] to be fit for delivery,” Kettle said.

It is such a shame … so much money and effort go into restoration but after several decades, they [might still] not be able to successfully create a forest with the ecosystem functions and services needed.

Ennia Bosshard, Ph.D. candidate, University of Exeter

Common obstacles include limited government budgets for restoration and conservation, a lack of collaboration between the forestry and agriculture ministries, and overreliance on civil society and NGOs to address problems, he added.

“You can make restoration commitments but unless you have realistic timelines to build infrastructure for diverse, quality, socially suitable species, everyone is just chasing their tail,” he said.

Adding to the problem, tree species in Asia good for biodiversity and locking up carbon happen to be particularly finnicky at the start of life. Large tropical trees in the region tend to be from the Dipterocarp family, across which hundreds of species are recalcitrant, meaning their seeds cannot survive drying and freezing, making long-term storage in seedbanks ineffective.

These native giants also only fruit once every four to five years in what are known as masting events — synchronised mass flowering and seed production episodes among trees in a forest — so seed collections must be properly timed. All these considerations make them “incredibly challenging to integrate in proper restoration,” Kettle said.

“There needs to be mechanisms in place to monitor native trees and collect seeds during masting. We still don’t see substantial investment going into that part of the forestry sector because there’s limited economic incentive,” he added.

Plant trees, not seeds

With governments worldwide setting net-zero goals to balance emissions with removal of greenhouse gases by 2050, forests have emerged as one of the more effective nature-based climate solutions available.

Tree-based restoration commitments are becoming more common but remain “very vague,” Kettle said. At the recent COP26 climate summit, more than 100 countries agreed to end net forest loss by 2030, a metric that would potentially allow them to continue deforesting as long as they plant new trees elsewhere.

“The big worry is that people are using tree planting as a smoke screen for addressing fossil fuels and deforestation,” Kettle said, adding that policymakers’ fixation on big and ambitious numbers must be accompanied by practical considerations of ecological and social benefits for restoration projects to be sustainable.

“Until we start to say it’s not about the number of trees planted or hectares restored, but how many trees actually persist in the landscape and deliver the right benefits to society, we won’t have successful outcomes of climate mitigation, food security, and biodiversity benefits,” he said.

The key lies in having large amounts of quality seeds of diverse species and provenance, and local community involvement, the study found.

They impact each other: in the Philippines, lack of local participation in restoration projects resulted in lower seed quality. In India, large-scale, government-led programs planted only a few species valued by local communities, disillusioning them.

As the climate changes, sourcing the same species of seed from different provenances will also become increasingly important, Bosshard said. Genetic diversity, where trees growing in certain locations are more tolerant of floods, droughts or other extreme weather events, will help grow more resilient forests adaptive to climate change.

‘We’re changing how we use trees in our landscape’

Getting today’s seed systems fit for purpose will take a long transition period, but building on existing knowledge in sectors like forestry and agriculture will speed up the process, Bosshard said.

For instance, government-led quality control mechanisms for seeds typically used in commercial forestry or agriculture can be adopted to regulate the restoration of native species, the study suggested.

Indonesia for one has a quality control system for exotic plantation species that offers a “comprehensive working model that covers seed sourcing and most aspects of harvesting,” the researchers wrote. And while Malaysia lacks a nationwide certification system for seeds used in restoration, seed quality standards exist for its rice and plantation crops, such as oil palm and rubber.

Having regulations in place for key areas like seed quality and provenance would enable governments to outsource more of restoration work to universities, NGOs, local farmers and private enterprises, and build a more robust network of seed collectors and nurseries to feed into the supply chain, Kettle said.

It would also benefit rural communities, by providing small farmers with sustainable livelihoods propagating seeds and selling seedlings for restoration. Robust guidelines are needed to “make sure people aren’t just trying to produce seedlings as quickly and cheaply as possible because they’re driven by profit,” but rather quality seeds that will result in long-term benefits, he added.

Technology could help, such as smartphone applications that enable local seed collectors to log information like tree species, date collected and seed provenance — building up a database of seeds with known genetic origins so practitioners can better select varieties suitable for locations they are planting in, instead of those most easily produced.

“In the past, [such work] would only be done for a few rare species, to be planted in arboretums and parks to make people more aware of them,” Kettle said. “But now it’s on a much larger scale.

“We’re changing how we use trees in our landscape to have an impact on the global crises of biodiversity, climate and food security, so we need to transition to much more fit-for-purpose seed systems that can deliver at scale.”

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