Using native plant life in a sustainable way
People have long relied on plants for food, building materials, clothing and medicines. As well as seeking, naming and classifying new plants, Kew is working with partner organisations and communities around the world to develop ways to use vital plants in a sustainable way.
With hundreds of plant species that are new to science still being encountered each year, there’s a chance we’re losing valuable plants before we have even realised their potential. This is because over-exploitation, urbanisation and climate change are taking their toll on wild stocks to the extent that around one third of plants are now threatened with extinction.
One aspect of Kew's global conservation work involves working with partner organisations and local communities to develop ways to use native plant life in a sustainable way and improve quality of life.
Helping boost nutrition in Kenya
One project that is helping promote sustainable use of plants, as well as boosting nutrition, is the African Wild Harvest. The scheme was initiated in 2002, after feedback from development organisations to the Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid lands (SEPASAL) suggested reliable information was needed on the role of wild food plants in nutrition in developing countries.
Kew is working with the National Museums of Kenya and local communities to encourage people to use traditional plant foods in a sustainable way that diversifies their diet. The idea is that the project will contribute to the UN Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. A pilot phase involved developing standards for recording indigenous knowledge on 22 plant species.
Producing sustainable fuelwood in Brazil
Another project aims to help people in Brazil use trees sustainably, for fuelwood and to make charcoal. Semi-arid regions across the tropics and subtropics are under great pressure from human populations, with the result that many habitats are now degraded.
Kew's scientists are working with Brazilian partners to investigate whether coppicing, pollarding or crown-thinning results in the best regrowth for four tree species valued for their burning properties, and assessing whether cutting is more effective in the dry or wet season. They aim to share the findings of trials in two areas of caatinga (shrubby vegetation covering more than ten per cent of Brazil) with schools, universities and communities. The hope is that smallholders will then be able to make informed decisions about how best to manage their limited tree resources.
Enabling the use of native plants around the world
Enabling the use of as wide a range of plant diversity as possible is one of the main aims of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP). Working with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the MSBP recently provided improved germination protocols to seed banks in 38 African countries. These include growing native fruit trees and wild vegetables that don’t require fertilizers or irrigation, and that are well adapted to local environments.
The MSBP’s Useful Plants Project, meanwhile, is working with communities in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Mali and Mexico to propagate useful plants in community gardens. This project is combining traditional knowledge on each plant’s use with horticultural expertise on how best to grow them. The selected species have in the past been collected from the wild; cultivating them reduces pressure on wild populations and makes more plants available for users.
Get involved - Adopt a Seed, Save a Species
We have successfully banked 10% of the world's wild plant species and we have set our sights on saving 25% by 2020.
Without plants there could be no life on earth, and yet every day another four plant species face extinction. Too often when we hear these kind of statistics there is little that we can do as individuals, but thanks to the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and the Adopt a Seed, Save a Species campaign there is something that you can do to ensure the survival of a plant species.
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elephant's foot yam
Elephant's foot yam is a spectacular shrubby climber from South Africa, which is threatened due to over-collection.
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