The last great plant hunt - Kew Publishing
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Banking on future food security

The last great plant hunt - Kew Publishing
The last great plant hunt - Kew Publishing

Carolyn Fry, Sue Seddon and Gail Vines’ The last great plant hunt (2011, published by Kew Publishing at £25.00 in hardback) is difficult to categorise. Certainly, The Last Great Plant Hunt [hereafter referred to as LGPH] is an unashamed advertisement for – and celebration of – the admirably optimistic and forward-looking achievement that is the UK-based Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), and is written by a trio who have/had strong connections with the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew, UK) that manages the facility at Wakehurst Place in Sussex (UK). But it is much more than that.

LGPH tells the story of Kew’s MSB – the “most biodiverse building on earth” (p. 93) – whose mission in storing seeds and understanding how to germinate them aims to “provide an insurance policy against imminent and future plant extinctions and to reverse the ongoing degradation of biodiversity by helping communities cultivate plants rather than exploit wild stocks” (p. 34). And it is doing that job rather well. In 2009 the MSB had secured seed from 10% (24,200 spp.) of the world’s flora, 14 months ahead of schedule (!), and under budget(!!). [Although the wisdom in 2007 of placing the billionth seed in the hands of a politician (p. 41) is questionable.] Currently, the MSB aims to have banked 25% of the world’s plant spp (angiosperms and gymnosperms in this context) by 2020; surely, a desperate race against time for the 100,000 spp. that are estimated to be currently facing extinction (p. 76).

Although much of the collected seed is stored safely in the chilled depths of the UK’s Sussex countryside, those carefully catalogued huddled masses have travelled there from every continent, like refugees from some global catastrophe. Accordingly, we have plant profiles of the Red Data-listed Tsodilo daisy of Botswana, ‘endangered in Lebanon’ Syrian bear’s breeches, and Berkshire (UK)’s critically endangered starfruit, along side insights into the Useful Plants Project (p. 152) – which helps local communities store and propagate their own particularly useful plants – operating in places as far-flung as Mali and Mexico. Accompanying the plants’ own stories are those of the people involved in their collection or use: The people dimension to the story is as important as the plants’. In some respects LGPH’s seed-collector’s tales are reminiscent of the exploits of the great plant hunters of the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries – notables such as Joseph Banks, Robert Fortune, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and George Forrest. But the MSB’s mission is arguably more important than those expeditions; its goal is to preserve plant biodiversity for all of humanity, rather than indulge in what may be regarded by some as the much less noble curiosity- and vanity-driven collection of new plants for the gardens of the already rich and famous. But is this really the last great plant hunt? Let’s hope not! There is still more angiosperm – and gymnosperm – diversity to find and preserve/conserve, which will only be possible with the MSB’s international partnerships with organisations in 50 countries such as South Africa, Malawi, Bulgaria, China, Australia, and Chile.

With more than 7 billion people on this planet – all of whom need to be fed – concerns over food security are firmly on the global humanitarian – if not yet the political – agenda. All too often wars, famines, and disease displace large human populations and interrupt the peaceful cultivation of crops, whilst salinisation, and desertification of soils put increasing demands on the agriculturally productive land that remains. Solutions to some of these problems may require development of new crop varieties, many of which will need to be found, or created using a mix of both traditional crop breeding and GM approaches. However, without the underlying genetic variety to work with those plans may be short-lived. So, finding and preserving the genetic diversity of certain crop spp. is an important dimension to the work of the MSB. Whilst the waste hierarchy’s 3 Rs of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle may be the mantra of the sustainability movement, the 3 Es – Endangered, Endemic, and Economic (pp. 44/5) – is the Leitmotiv of seed conservation, and helps to direct the MSB’s seed collecting efforts. But is this subterranean seed storage in sleepy Sussex a case of putting all one’s egg in one basket? Hopefully, not; several similar depositories exist throughout the world, and the book does make a nod in their direction (e.g. probably the coolest one of them all in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, whose single mention is on p. 38), so the risk is somewhat spread. But I do wonder how safe such installations are – whether it be from terrorist – or extraterrestrial – attack, natural disasters (such as earthquake, tsunami…), or something as mundane as a power cut so that the freezers fail.

LGPH contains some of the most sumptuous illustrations I’ve seen in a botanical book for some time (exemplified in the 2-page spread entitled ‘Nature’s life-giving works of art’ on pp. 14-15. and the far-too-blue seeds of traveller’s palm on pp. 114/5). The book is arranged as numerous short items – typically only 2 pp. long, and which are easy to read – spread over 6 chapters covering such topics as conserving wild plants on a global scale, in search of the world’s seeds, and breathing life into degraded ecosystems. The abundant ‘amazing plant facts’, ‘amazing seed facts’, and ‘conservation facts’ scattered throughout the book help to keep it highly readable, informative, and interesting. LPGH also contains a wealth of other facts about seed biology, biodiversity, endangered floras and botanising in some of the world’s most challenging environments, and provides an interesting focus around which to base teaching sessions. And the global dimension of those short snippets of information also serves to underline the fact that the MSB is not just Kew’s story, it is everybody’s story.

In summary, The Last Great Plant Hunt is part glossy PR marketing brochure, part textbook, part blueprint for global survival, part Guinness book of seed-related facts, part adventure story, part heart-warming tale of international co-operation and optimism, part gazetteer, and part coffee-table book; and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This account of the first 10 years of the MSB’s Project – and its ongoing Partnership – is a great story and deserves to be told. And Fry et al.’s book does it well!
Nigel Chaffey

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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