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How can we speed up the delivery of genetic gain into our forests

New Zealand has invested heavily in breeding programmes to improve the performance of our Radiata pine planting stock focusing on improving growth, tree form, wood quality and disease tolerance. There has also been investment in genomics to make better predictions on genetic quality from the breeding programmes with the aim of speeding up the selection of material with the required traits. Radiata Pine Breeding Company (RPBC), Scion and others are at the forefront of this work. The six year large government/industry research programme, the Growing Confidence in Forestry’s Future (GCFF) programme, which ends towards the end of 2019, has recently completed a whole of rotation assessment of improved genetic tree stocks planted in the early 1990’s. This work has shown value gains of 20-30% for the best genetic material available to growers at the time these stands were planted.

A challenge for our industry is to find ways to reduce the time it takes to get the best material produced by RPBC into our forests. With the above gains being possible, getting this material into the forest is important to maximise the return on the substantial investment being made in breeding and genomics. It is surprising to learn that from the time RPBC undertake crosses in their breeding programme, it takes around 25years, almost a full rotation, to graft, fully test, establish seed orchards, produce seed and then propagate via cutting systems before tree stocks are ready to plant into the forest. Genomic selection techniques offer the potential to speed up the selection process but the big gains, and the introduction of clonal forestry, are dependent on reliable and cost effective tissue culture technologies.

Working closely with industry and Scion we have developed an exciting and innovative proposal to develop an automated tissue culture process using bioreactors for Radiata pine that offers the potential to reduce the time to deploy tested clones from RPBC breeding and genomics programme to less than 10 years and possibly as short as six years. The value proposition for the forest growing industry is very significant – hundreds of millions of dollars - if this can be achieved.

With the funding support of the Forest Growers Levy Trust, and the full support of RPBC, and seed and clonal producers, a funding application has been submitted to the government’s MBIE partnership fund 2019 funding round. We expect to hear within a couple of months whether this exciting new partnership programme will be supported by MBIE.