Rule change unlocks national seed bank for researchers

A new government agreement is promising to speed up the development of new forage cultivars by enabling faster access to imported seed lines in New Zealand’s national grassland seed bank.

A major change in regulations controlling post-entry quarantine of seeds has been announced following negotiations between AgResearch and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

​The change will have significant benefits for forage plant breeders by enabling faster development of new pasture cultivars.

The rule change allows release of imported seeds of the main grasses of importance to New Zealand (ryegrasses, fescues and several others) without a post-entry growth period in a quarantine glasshouse.

Zane Webber of the Margot Forde Germplasm Centre, who led the negotiations for AgResearch, says that the new regulations enable the Centre to be used to its full potential as a national seed bank of grassland plants and better serve the pastoral research community.

A major part of the work of the centre is collecting seeds from wild grassland areas throughout the world. These can then be used to create new forage cultivars to combat changing conditions such as new pests and climate change.

“We welcome this change in the regulations as it will enable researchers and plant breeders to gain quicker and less expensive access to germplasm, but still ensure a rigorous level of biosecurity is maintained,” he says.

“It reduces the upfront financial costs and time involved in using material from the Centre, and will break down what has up until now been a major barrier to exploratory research.

“The Centre is not a museum of seeds; it is intended to be an active collection, and this enables it to be used at such. We now have regulations that ensure a good level of access for people that need it while mitigating the risks.”

The seed can only be released to bona fide researchers and plant breeders who sign an agreement to undertake monitoring and documentation of the plants derived from the seed, and to report any anything unusual.

“Ensuring researchers have continued access to these seeds is critical as the New Zealand pastoral sector, and therefore a major part of our economy, is wholly reliant on them,” says Webber.

An MPI Standards spokesperson Kathryn Hurr says the new regulations strike the right balance between enabling critical research and maintaining high levels of biosecurity.

”This project is a real win–win. Breeders now have faster access to this amazing collection of seeds which they can evaluate, looking for those new traits that will help keep our pastoral industries at the top of their game.”