Plants are in trouble – but is rescue at hand?

Nature Studies: Human life ultimately depends on about 30 crops, from wheat to rice

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The Independent Online

Here’s an unfamiliar question: as the natural world continues to go to hell in a handcart, who speaks up for plants? It’s a question which perhaps comes into focus if you ask a supplementary: who speaks up for birds? Because there, the answer is obvious: a great swelling chorus of voices. In Britain alone we have the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a thousand smaller societies and vocal birders and bloggers, while in America there is the Audubon Society, and for the world as a whole we have BirdLife International, the global partnership of bird protection bodies.

And similarly, if you ask, who speaks up for elephants, or tigers, or the great whales, more international choruses will respond. But for plants, for threatened plants – and a fifth of the world’s plant species are already in danger of extinction – the thundering chorus is absent. There is no loud, articulate, global voice calling for their conservation, even though plants form the foundation of the world’s ecosystems; even though, in terms of human welfare, plants are infinitely more important than birds or elephants, with all human life ultimately depending on a suite of about 30 crops, from wheat to rice, from maize to millet. In the modern industrialised world, this has been forgotten: there is a complete disconnect in people’s minds between plants and our utter dependence upon them.

That’s why, as the worldwide destruction of nature continues, now more than ever, plants need a powerful international champion to speak out on their behalf: and it is possible that such a champion is about to emerge, in the shape of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

As the world’s leading centre of botanical science, this is a role Kew could and should have played in the past: but it has not. You have to look at Kew’s history to understand why: its primary purpose has always been taxonomic. It discovered plants, it named and it described and it classified them. It still does. In recent years, it has begun to concern itself more with conservation; but it has still not discovered advocacy. It has been a largely silent witness of the environmental crisis – even the botanical aspects of it.

Two recent, dramatic events illustrated this clearly. It 2011 the Conservative part of the Coalition attempted to raise £250m by selling off England’s public forests, but was forced into an humiliating U-turn by a public outcry, in which the Royal Botanic Gardens took no part: not a peep out of Kew. OK, it depends on government funding. But not even a raised eyebrow…?

The following year, Chalara – or ash dieback disease – blew into Britain and threatened every ash tree in the land; yet in the anguished debated which followed, on what to do about new plant diseases, it was the Forestry Commission which took the lead, and Kew was once again silent. 

Yet this may be changing. From next November, the Royal Botanic Gardens will be publishing a new annual report, The State of the World’s Plants. With all of Kew’s prestige behind it, this will draw international attention, year after year, to what is happening with deforestation, with invasive species, with new plant pathogens, and all the other threats to the flowers and trees and crops which are such a key part of our lives, and which we take so much for granted. The first report, to be launched just before the vital UN climate summit in Paris (which will attempt to cut a comprehensive deal to halt global warming), is likely to focus on the effects on the plant kingdom of climate change; it is likely to receive wide coverage 

Last week funding of £1.7m was secured, from a retired British businessman and his wife who are enthusiastic Kew supporters, to produce the report for the next five years, which means it will be insulated from the cuts the government keeps trying to impose on the world’s greatest botanical garden. Over the last year or so the funding battle has led to great unhappiness, with experienced scientists made redundant and poor staff morale, and a raft of depressing headlines. 

Despite two emergency cash injections from ministers, Kew still faces a £5m “black hole” in its budget from grant reductions, and only last week the Commons Science and Technology Committee said that the way the Government funds (or does not fund) the RBG was “a recipe for failure”. The committee chairman, Andrew Miller MP, said that the situation left Kew “with little ability to plan for the future and is undermining its capability to produce world-beating plant science”.

Yet the prospect of The State of the World’s Plants, which is an initiative of Kew’s new science strategy, produced by the director, Richard Deverell, and his director of science, Kathy Willis, is genuinely good news. Done properly, it will have enormous influence all around the world, helping to set priorities for action: and it will help turn Kew Gardens – sublime visitor attraction, longtime centre of scientific excellence as it already is – into the global voice for plants which the world needs, and which it ought to be.