Breeding program matching oil quality with market demand


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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.

(R to L) University’s project leader Dr Merv Shepherd; Tony Larkman, CEO ATTIA (Australian Tea Tree Industry Association); John Smith, AgriFutures Australia General Manager, Research; and Julia Voelker, PhD researcher at Southern Cross University.


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.

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.

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.

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