Page last updated at 12:22 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 13:22 UK

Bank on seeds - the world's buffer

Steve Hopper
Steve Hopper

Conserving genetic diversity in botanic gardens and seed banks is a sensible and practical precaution for an uncertain future, says Steve Hopper. With species loss at an unnatural high and with climate change threatening many ecosystems, he argues that the need to invest in these facilities has never been greater.

Nymphaea nouchali, a Kenyan water lily
Plant diversity is invaluable to humanity; it sustains us now, and in the future it will enable us to adapt, innovate and ultimately to survive

Kew, like other botanic gardens around the world, provides inspiration, enjoyment, tranquillity and learning to millions of visitors of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

But in a time of ever-increasing environmental challenges, including massive loss of biodiversity and climate change, the role of botanic gardens is much wider.

Collectively, we have the knowledge and expertise to make a very real and positive difference to biodiversity conservation around the world.

In the lead-up to the United Nations' International Year of Biological Diversity in 2010, and as we approach the UN's critical climate conference in Copenhagen in just a few weeks, it is clear that the challenges we face and the potential of botanic gardens to help solve these challenges through science-based plant conservation have never been greater.

As the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew celebrates its 250th anniversary, we are assessing how best we can use our tremendous resources to address the critical environmental issues of our time for the sake of our own well-being and for future generations.

It is one of the world's greatest collections of information relating to wild plants (including living plants, preserved specimens, plant DNA, seeds, library, art, archives and economic botany) as well as the knowledge, expertise and partnerships developed over our 250-year history.

As the UN-backed study The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) begins to put a value on natural capital - the forests, deserts, oceans, rivers, animals and plants that we rely on in a million ways - it is critical that we halt the squandering of these precious resources.

Essential growth

Plants absorb carbon and provide oxygen, thereby providing air we can breathe and helping to regulate the climate.

Sunset scene
Pipeline projects include restoring the ecology of damaged areas

They provide food, medicine, shelter, clean water and fertile soil.

Plant diversity is invaluable to humanity; it sustains us now, and in the future it will enable us to adapt, innovate and ultimately to survive.

Kew's response to the increasingly urgent need to address environmental challenges including climate change is outlined in the Breathing Planet programme.

With the ultimate objective of a world where plant diversity is conserved, restored and more sustainably used to improve the quality of human lives, the Breathing Planet programme will be achieved through seven strategies that:

• accelerate targeted scientific discovery of plant and fungal diversity and make information on plant diversity much more readily accessible

• help identify species and regions most at risk in terms of plant and fungal diversity loss

• contribute to conservation programmes on the ground

• secure 25% of the world's plants in seed banks by 2020, and enable the sustainable use of seeds for human benefit

• accelerate the science of restoration ecology and enhance global networks involved in repair of the Earth using plant diversity

• bring a new focus to the use of local plants for local people in agricultural and urban lands

• ensure that Kew uses its World Heritage collections and gardens to engage with visitors on site and online across the world in devising new ways of sustainable living through plant-based solutions, science, conservation and community involvement.

At the heart of this future vision is Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership.

There is no technological reason why any plant species should become extinct. It is simply a question of priorities

Described by Sir David Attenborough as "perhaps the most ambitious conservation initiative ever", the partnership will announce on 15 October the banking and conservation of 10% of the world's plant species.

This enormous achievement has been accomplished with over 120 partners in 54 countries.

This truly global partnership has delivered ambitious conservation targets on time and under budget.

Key collection

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank is a unique, global asset. It is the largest facility of its kind in the world and contains the world's most diverse seed collections.

Over the past 10 years, more than 3.5 billion seeds from 25,000 species have been collected and stored in their country of origin and in Kew.

Species are chosen by country partners according to whether they are rare or endangered or of particular potential use - for example as medicine, food, animal fodder or shelter.

This collection addresses concerns about human adaptation to climate change highlighted in the Stern Review, and has the potential to make a major contribution to the delivery of the Millennium Development Goals.

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership is a tangible first step in bringing the enormous wealth of expertise in the world's foremost plant science institutions to bear on the major environmental challenges of the 21st Century, including food security and sustainable energy as well as loss of biodiversity and climate change.

Bagging specimens in the Cape region of South Africa
Specimens are chosen and collected by country partners

The significance and value of the partnership grows daily, and this remarkable collaboration provides a real message of hope and steadfast achievement in a world where doom and gloom about the environment is becoming common currency.

This milestone is an inspirational outcome, and all involved in this fine global achievement should be warmly congratulated.

However, there is much more to be done, and Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership will grow and develop with the aim of conserving and enabling use of 25% of plant species by 2020.

In addition, we aim to increase capacity on the ground and develop areas relatively new to science, such as restoration ecology to restore degraded habitats.

Despite its achievements, the project is unfunded from 2010 and to achieve its goals, Kew and its partners will need the support of governments, corporations and individuals.

When we lose a species, we have no idea what the scale of that loss truly is.

Every species we conserve has potential value, and there is no technological reason why any plant species should become extinct. It is simply a question of priorities.

Investing a small fraction of the world's financial resources in biodiversity conservation and science over the next few decades would reap irreplaceable long-term rewards.

Professor Stephen Hopper is director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Steve Hopper? Are seed banks and botanic gardens important conservation resources? Is funding them a good investment for governments, companies and individuals? Is preserving genetic diversity a buffer against environmental impacts such as climate change?

The agricultural dimension is often overlooked in these discussions. Let us not forget that our cultivated biodiversity (crops and their wild relatives) is also threatened. The world's genebanks and their collections of crop diversity will be vital to any effort to adapt agriculture to climate change. Yet their funding is for the most part not secure. we need to do something about this -- and soon -- or we will live to regret it.
Luigi Guarino, Rome, Italy

Nice article Professor Hopper. Kew's Millennium Seed Bank is a great concept. Our planet urgently requires such activities. We have to start and strengthen such type of parallel activities to neutralize the speed and potential of present form of human civilization. The climate change movement is not there to oppose or hurt anybody. It is there to transform the existing pattern and then to support the new pattern. The environmental challenges, we are facing today are the second half part or the consequences of the previous technological developments. Often technology is based on the immediate requirements and the priorities of the human beings. The long term aspects of the technologies are always overlooked. So many Noble prizes have been awarded to the pioneers of the technological concepts, but the quality of environment on our planet is rapidly going down. Definitely, there were things, more important than the activities what we preferred to support earlier. We are not outsiders; in fact we are part of this planet. In earlier centuries, we have 'taken' lot of things from this planet. This is the time we have to 'return' to the planet. All our efforts may become null and void unless we do not check the growth of human population.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

Read "Where Our Food Comes From--Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine" by Gary Paul Nabhan Island Press (2009).
anna, Pullman, WA

Fot me it just defies common sense logic that people can not, do not, or Will not make the connection between emmissionf of internal combustions engines, Especially DIE-SEL, and plant, tree, and Human Health issues! Thank you again for your insightful article on biodiversity, I hope we as a world population, can come to recognize and take action, before it is too late for all of us, however, here in the USA, that it Highly Doubtful! Keep up the phenomenal writing!
PATRICIAaPESEK, San Antonio, Texas USA

Steve Hopper's idea is marvellous. There are millions of medicinal herbs as well which are being vanished from mountain areas as well as in forests due to climatical conditions around the globe. Every country in the world has botanists working in agricultural research institute, it should be a worldwide campaign to conserve seeds of various plants, herbs, flowers etc. in these research institions, and they should be supported to organize seed banks. We must vigorously support this idea.
shaukat ali chughtai, Lahore, Pakistan

My friend and I, both amateur botanists, have been collecting seeds for this project for the last three years through Chicago Botanic Garden's auspices...seeds which have also been going to the Seeds of Success programme here in the US. So yes, as you may guess, I believe it is vital to continue with this; and that Botanic Gardens can and should be playing a huge role in our conservation efforts globally.
Hilary Cox, Avon, Indiana, USA

Absolutely. Botanic gardens have been one of the very first methods used by botanists to conserve plant diversity. However their ability to conserve genetic diversity have been limited in view of the space they need. But many botanic gardens now have established seed banks which significantly improve their capacity to conserve greater genetic diversity of the immumerable species they maintain in their garden. Genetic diversity is the raw material required to allow plants adapt to changes in their environment and with the menace of climate change that diversity is becoming even more important for the survival of our plants and animals. We are reaching the point of no return. Governments and funding agencies must realise that conserving biodiversity is fundamental OUR own survial and that all the "other" investments they are making will be of no use if our life support system is not secured.
Ehsan Dulloo, Rome, Italy

Of course funding them is worth while. However, these should be for a 'doomsday' scenario, we should not use them as a get out clause to continue our destruction of biodiversity. As far as we know this is the only planet that supports life in the universe. Though there may be others there will be none like ours and hence we have a huge responsibility. We are the first chance life on this planet has had at protection, yet we are doing the exact opposite. Time to grow up as a species, we may be advanced, but we certainly aren't civilised.
Chris, Bristol

This work is vital. The article reveals a couple of scary side issues. Bio diversity must be seen as a parrallel issue running along side climate change; boh these problems are symptoms of the real problem; too much human activity. If, however, biodiversity is simply flagged as a subset of climate change, then big business will simply say; "oh, well, we fix the little glitch with CO2 emissions; we fix everything else and we can carry on 'more more more' ripping up the planet. Actually we can carry on killing off species at a fatal rate even if we were to get a zero carbon emissions economy from out fo thin air. So first of all this issue must stand and ring the alarms in it's own right. Second scary thing is; for these seeds to be viable we need to take them out of their storage flasks, plant them, and germinate them so often to keep them going; they cannot be stored indefinately - the problem is; if we have ripped up so much planet that there is no room for these plants now . . . . where exactly are we going to plant them out in 20 years time to refresh the seed stocks; where exactly do you put a stand of giant redwoods trees to get to seed bearing age in the middle of a concrete building site ?? No; I fear this stuff is going because we cannot get our heads around the idea leaving bits of the planet alone because we need to. So we store all this stuff in a tunnel, in liquid nitrogen; but where do we plant them when the time comes. All in all the really sensible thing to do is to store "us" in the tunnels in the nitrogen flasks and leave the plants up here to get on with repairing the damage we have done to the planet. So guys; I read these stories about seed-arks; my only hope is somebody remembers to leave a sign on the door; "Will the last person left alive please let the plants out "
steven walker, Penzance

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