China’s new silvicultural revolution

Of all Sino-Australian exchanges, the story of how an Australian gum tree came to transform China’s plantation timber industry is one of the least known. The revolution came about with a major contribution from Australian scientist Dr Roger Arnold.

Eucalypts became one of Australia’s earliest exports after European colonial powers discovered they could thrive in poor soils in most warm climates. It’s believed the French introduced the trees to China in the late 1800s, but it was to be another century before Australian and Chinese forestry experts joined forces to turbocharge the productivity of China’s eucalypt plantations.

In 1982, a year after the Sino-Australian forestry collaboration first kicked off, an outdoorsy young Melburnian, having just graduated with Bachelor of Science (Forestry) from Australian National University, began a career that was to see him gain a PhD from North Carolina State University (a world-leader in the field of tree breeding). He would go on to improve the lives of millions by guiding the development of successful forestry programs in developing nations.

“After graduating I spent six years working in private industry, then did postgraduate study in the US, then joined CSIRO [Australia’s national science agency],” recalls Dr Roger Arnold.

“At that time, the CSIRO’s forestry division was assisting developing countries identify the best sources of seed, establish seed orchards and develop advanced generation breeding programs for eucalypts. I helped implement programs in Sri Lanka and the Philippines but it was obvious the country with the biggest potential was China.

“From 1999 to 2004 I spent a lot of time in China, mainly working on a project to establish cold-tolerant eucalypt species in a number of southern provinces. Eventually I relocated there permanently,” Arnold recalls.

“Initially I worked for a Chinese forestry company but after the Global Financial Crisis hit, I accepted an offer to become a senior research scientist at the Chinese Eucalypt Research Centre. There had already been a revolution in productivity from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, due to intensive Sino-Australian experimentation into which species, varieties, fertilisers, planting densities and rotation times yielded the best results and I was employed to help engineer a second ‘great leap forward’.”

It’s difficult to overestimate the significance of Arnold’s work, not just for China’s economy but also for the planet. While eucalypts account for around five per cent of China’s plantation trees, they produce close to 20 per cent of the wood harvest. One of the best hopes for moderating China’s voracious appetite for wood harvested from at-risk native forests – both its own and those of other nations – is a second sizeable leap in the productivity of eucalypt plantations.

“China now produces just under half the timber it uses and it’s feasible that could rise to around 70 per cent if it continues to focus on quality plantation development and management,” Dr Arnold predicts.

“I’m working with my colleagues on tree improvement and silvicultural programs, advising them on managing and analysing their data. My contribution is the scientific rigour I’ve developed through my industry and academic experience; there needs to be excellent systems in place to manage research projects and analyse data relating to tens of thousands of trees scattered in different locations.

“You have to be able to come back in five years time and identify the best trees to act as parents to create the superior progeny. And, a few years after that, you need to be able to select the best of the seedling progeny in order to keep delivering incrementally superior hybrid clones to the commercial growers.”

It’s not only the Chinese who stand to benefit from the research being overseen by Dr Arnold, work that has already seen him showered with honours, including a prestigious Chinese Government Friendship Award.

“Brazil and India actually have more land devoted to eucalypt plantations than China and Australia, and South Africa isn’t far behind,” he says. “While there’s competition between countries and companies there’s also plenty of collaboration, meaning any big advance soon translates into benefits that are shared worldwide.”