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sowing a seed of doubt

The State of the world’s plants.

As someone who has dedicated my education and work life to the understanding of plants and their management, I am often intrigued at the sheer variety of species that populate our planet and how each one has found its own niche to thrive in. And the more I learn, the more I find I have yet learn: it is best summed up like a walk along the Malvern Hills. You crest the summit of one hill, only to see another one rising beyond. Once this second summit is reached, you perceive another, beckoning you onward.

Take The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and their recent report published last week: “The state of the world’s plants,” is the first of what promises to be an annual report that aims to establish a baseline of species numbers and habitats so we will know, in the following years, how they are faring on a global scale.

The report estimates that there are approximately 391,000 vascular plants known to science, with 2000 new ones being discovered and named each year. The report also highlights the fact that nearly 10% of this number have specific uses for humanity, from medicine to fuel and food (both human and animal), and yet of the number that make up the total, the report also highlighted significant gaps in the collection of samples and DNA. In other words, there is almost certainly a huge amount more we could gain from these plants than we are currently.

And this matters, as the report contains an ominous warning that is genuinely shocking, even in these days of media doom-trading:

21% of these plant species are in danger of being made extinct as land use is changed to feed the world’s exploding population, as well as the ‘usual suspect’ of climate change. As someone who has worked with plants all my life, guiding my customers with choices that would suit their needs, that is a figure with staggering implications: you cannot remove so many species without having, quite genuinely, catastrophic impacts on local ecosystems.

But we are not lost yet. Conservation has moved ever higher up the political agenda and in public awareness in a noticeable way. Institutions like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault whose mission is to keep the seeds of the world’s agricultural crops safe in event of natural or manmade disaster set a precedent that is being extended by other organisations, such as Kew itself, whose Millennium Seed Bank project aims to conserve 25% of the world’s plants by 2020 – they are currently on 13%. (I have included a link to this fascinating and noble project below – you can conserve a seed with a £25 donation, or preserve a species if you have a spare £1000).

Fantastic as these projects are however, they should really be viewed as a last resort to prevent extinction. Preserving seeds in a vault is not quite the same as having viable populations of growing plants. It might also create a negative impact in conservation as we start to rely too much on seed banks and not on our efforts to actually keep the plants flourishing in the wild. Likewise, the removal of species from the wild, to an existence preserved in a seed bank, will have severe knock on affects for local ecosystems as the animals that have evolved alongside them, and have unique adaptations to use these species, will find that they have no such biological partner remaining. Again, once these are gone, it will have a further knock on effect for that ecosystem as a whole, and species diversity will rapidly decline.

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