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Breeding program matching oil quality with market demand


Sharlene King
18 October 2019
Tea tree in bloom at research site at Lismore campus.
Tea tree in bloom at the Lismore campus research plantation.

The future viability and profitability of the Australian tea tree industry is being advanced by a $1.6 million industry agreement to support a breeding program based at Southern Cross University in Lismore.

Continual improvement of the quality and quantity of oil produced in tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) plantations will ensure Australia maintains its market leader status in the face of increasing competition from China, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Known as the ‘Tea Tree Breeding Program 2019-2023’, this new four-year project will continue to support the advancement of the breeding population. It brings together the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association (ATTIA), AgriFuturesTM Tea Tree Oil Program and Southern Cross University, and builds on the legacy of desirable traits identified and selected through the previous generations of the Tea Tree Breeding Program.

The University’s project leader Dr Merv Shepherd said: “I look forward to contributing to the ongoing growth and profitability of this important rural industry.

“Breeding an industrial crop like tea tree requires not only an understanding of the biology and genetics of the plant, but also of the environment in which it is grown, production economics, and the market requirements of the end product.

“Having the tea tree breeding program based at a regional University in the heart of a major growing district will stimulate inter-disciplinary research in genetics, agronomy, product quality and efficacy, which will inform breeding, increase its effectiveness, and provide obvious logistical benefits in the operation of the program.”

Until July 2017, Tea Tree Breeding Program was conducted by the NSW Department of Primary Industries and the CSIRO at the NSW DPI’s Agricultural Institute at Wollongbar. Beginning in 1993, the Program has contributed to major increases in the uniformity and quantity of oil produced from plantations. The Program was originally funded via voluntary industry subscription, bush seed sales, and Commonwealth funds delivered by NSW DPI and CSIRO, and managed by AgriFutures Australia and ATTIA Ltd.

The second era of the Program, led by Southern Cross University, builds on the legacy of this early program and aims to continue to improve the quality and quantity of oil produced in plantations.

The new breeding program also has synergies with ongoing research at Southern Cross Plant Science aimed at optimising propagation methods and the development of new product lines for tea tree, through links with research underway in a Cooperative Research Centre – Project, ‘Enhanced market agility for the Australian Tea Tree Industry’.

Associate Professor Bronwyn Barkla, Director of Southern Cross Plant Science, said: “We are excited that the new Tea Tree Breeding Program will allow Southern Cross Plant Science to continue building on our strong engagement with the tea tree industry and welcome the opportunity to work with AgriFutures Australia on this project to help grow the long-term prosperity of such an important Australian rural industry.

“Since the late 1990s, Southern Cross Plant Science has supported the industry through specific research projects, training of future scientists and carrying out essential analytical services, as well as providing education and training to growers working with tea tree.”

AgriFutures Australia General Manager, Research John Smith congratulated the tea tree oil industry and Southern Cross University on its foresight and commitment to RD&E.

“Since the initiation of the first program (Tea Tree Breeding Program I) in 1993, oil yields have increased around three-fold. The legacy of the Tea Tree Breeding program is its major contribution to the development of the tea tree oil industry into the mature, stable and internationally competitive industry that it is today.

“AgriFutures Australia is privileged to manage the RD&E investment of such a progressive industry. The Tea Tree Breeding Program 2 will be fundamental in delivering increases in oil yield, quality and pest resistance, and in turn improve the supply of Australian tea tree oil,” said Mr Smith.  

AgriFutures Australia Manager, Research Gae Plunkett added: “The tea tree oil industry has transformed from a fledging cottage industry in the 1970s and 80s into a fully emerged plantation-based industry. This remarkable success story would never have happened without the dedication and foresight of dedicated researchers and breeders. These pioneers assessed hundreds of wild tea trees and collected seed from the best of these to form the core of the iconic Tea Tree Breeding Program.

“Despite these gains the industry must continue to improve supply, profitability and increase the demand of tea tree oil in domestic and international markets. The Tea Tree Breeding Program will continue to play a central role in providing a reliable source of high quality seed stock cultivars to improve the supply of Australian tea tree oil,” said Ms Plunkett.


Tea tree oil

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) is grown for its essential oil, an iconic Australian product which is distilled from the leaf and sold all around the world for use in cosmetic and healthcare products. The Australian tea tree oil plantation industry had its origins in the late 1980s on the Northern Rivers of NSW. Since then, it has grown into a highly profitable rural industry, contributing A$45 million per year to regional economies.

Plantations can be found along the coastal regions of northern NSW (from Coffs Harbour to Tweed Heads) as well as Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands, near Cairns. There are around 4,000 hectares under tea tree production in Australia.


Tea tree research at Southern Cross University

Tea tree research at Southern Cross University extends back to 1998 where foundational studies on the genetics of the tea tree plant, the composition of its essential oil, and formulation of the oil into healthcare and cleaning products, were undertaken.

This early interest in tea tree has carried though to present day research in the University’s Southern Cross Plant Science research centre.

The new breeding program is already benefiting from links with researchers at Southern Cross Plant Science and the Analytical Research Laboratory through interactions with soil scientists to work out more efficient fertiliser prescriptions for new breeds of tea tree, and with chemists to develop faster and cheaper ways to test oil quality and yields.


Southern Cross Plant Science

Southern Cross Plant Science provides genetics, genomics, agronomic and plant chemistry expertise and services to a number of industries including macadamia, rice, brassica, passionfruit, coffee and tea tree. Its TGA-accredited Analytical Research Laboratory has provided chemical analysis and certification services to the tea tree industry since the early 2000s.

AgriFutures™ Tea Tree Oil Program

Research and development has been critical in establishing the Australian tea tree oil industry which has made significant growth and expansion in the past 25 years, thanks in part to significant RD&E investment.

AgriFutures Australia partnered with the Australian Tea Tree Oil Industry Association (ATTIA) in 1998 to fund R&D using core government funds and voluntary contributions from tea tree oil producers. R&D funds from the Australian Government were entrusted to AgriFutures Australia (formerly Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation) for developing new plant industries. In 2016 Australian tea tree oil growers voted to establish a compulsory levy to fund RD&E. In July 2017, with the introduction of the grower-led compulsory levy (calculated at 25c per kilogram of tea tree oil produced), the Australian tea tree oil industry emerged as a mature industry. AgriFutures Australia was entrusted to manage the RD&E investment via the AgriFuturesTM Tea Tree Oil Program. Half of AgriFuturesTM Tea Tree Oil Program expenditure, minus levy collection costs, is matched by the Australian Government at up to 0.5% of the industry GVP.

Over the past 25 years, the industry has doubled production and established international markets. Key gains include:

  • A jump from early oil yields of 100-150 kilograms per hectare 25 years ago to current yields with new cultivars which consistently yield around 350-450 kg/ha. Best crops yield up to 900 kg/ha.
  • The increase in productivity has delivered an estimated annual $4.5 million benefit to growers and $75 million to the Australian economy over the last 17 years.
  • Australia is the largest producer of TTO globally and in 2018/19 produced about 900,000kg of 100% pure Australian TTO valued at $38 million.