by Toby McMaster
As a world we currently face many major problems, to which we have yet to find specific solutions. The answers to many of these lie, at least partially, in plants. The first land plants appeared roughly 450 million years ago, primates around 80 million years ago and the first Homo sapiens only about 450,000 years ago. In short, for every year humans have inhabited planet Earth, land plants have inhabited it for a millenium. In fact, it seems likely that however hard we try to ruin our planet for ourselves, some vegetation will still outlive us. In the history book of plants, humans may yet just appear as a brief speck – a self-destructive species that got too big for its evolutionary boots and brought entire ecosystems tumbling down with it. Plants are here to stay – so why not use them to try and ensure that we are too? In this first blog entry we will explore the various ways in which plants can help us overcome the issues facing humankind.
With the recent IPCC report on climate change delivering a figure of 95% certainty that humans are causing the current rise in global temperature, it is surely necessary to act to mitigate the situation, even if only as a precaution. Given that 15% of atmospheric CO2passes through plants each year, they are certain to play a role if we are to keep global warming to a minimum. We desperately need a better understanding of the likely worldwide effects of climate change on plant life and to try to work out what we can do to minimise any damage such changes will cause.
Starvation and Malnutrition
According to the World Health Organisation, 842 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. 827 million of these people live in developing countries. The UN predicts that by 2050 the world population will reach 9.6 billion. Moreover that of developed regions is forecast to remain largely unchanged at around 1.3 billion from now until then while the 49 least developed countries are expected to double in size from around 900 million people in 2013 to 1.8 billion in 2050. This will lead to widespread hunger we can’t understand on a scale we can’t understand. These are an intimidating set of circumstances but as a planet we can rise to the challenge. To do this will require improving both crop yields and food distribution, and reducing waste. The fact is that as a massive proportion of the Earth’s ecological base plants represent the most efficient way to feed more people faster. To utilise them we need to explore all the techniques available to us, GM is undoubtedly one of these but is far from a magic bullet, we also need to put as many resources as we can into understanding how to optimise agriculture.
We are currently in the middle of the 6th mass extinction event in the history of our planet, and the first since 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the Earth. Species are going extinct at somewhere between 100 and 1000 times the expected background rate. It is arguably unethical for our one species to have eliminated so many others, but in one sense extinction is a natural process we have merely accelerated through habitat destruction and climate change. The real issue is that we are reliant on so many species which are in danger of extinction and that we are rapidly losing the opportunities, including novel medicines, offered by so many more.
The approach taken in the past has often been based on the naïve human view that we can just hang on to the species we are interested in and let the remainder of the natural world disappear into oblivion. This is misguided for two main reasons: firstly, our knowledge of the natural world is nowhere near sufficient to rule out species as useless to us, and secondly, species do not exist in isolation but rather as complex ecosytems to be viewed as cohesive units. Plants will represent a massive part of future attempts at restorative ecology – trying to rebuild damaged ecosystems. They must also be carefully protected in the functional ecosystems we still have, as they are so often the foundation stone on which the rest of the community is built.
In an age where we have complex techniques such as X-ray crystallography to help probe molecular structures, we might like to think we are beyond simply taking compounds plants have already made for us, and using these chemicals to treat disease. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in the year 2000 around 25 percent of prescription drugs dispensed in the United States contain plant extracts or active ingredients derived from plants, and more than 60 percent of cancer drugs on the market were based at least in part on natural products. These are, admittedly, not incredibly recent statistics, but the timescale over which new drug discovery and production takes place means they are likely still approximately accurate. There are still countless conditions and diseases for which we have no or poor treatments, and plants will have a massive role to play in helping fight these ailments.
As demonstrated by the last two examples in particular, these problems are not isolated from each other. Plummeting biodiversity is cutting down our supply of potential new medicines, medicines which we will need to help treat a booming population in developing nations where mortality rates from infectious disease rates are highest. Any new drugs will likely be incredibly expensive to begin with, a problem which may be compounded by the economic impact of climate change on developing countries.
This is only a short list of the problems we face and plants may well not hold the solution to all of them, but they are an incredible natural resource which we should make use of. This blog is dedicated to discussing the ways in which we can do this, and to generating enthusiasm for plant science research.