State of the World’s Plants and Fungi: Does conservation policy help or hinder scientific research?

Policies brought into protect plants could also cause harm by restricting research into habitats.

Plant and fungal biodiversity is under significant threat, with an estimated 2 out of 5 plants at risk of extinction and the current extinction rate of fungi poorly known, as outlined in the recent State of the World’s Plants and Fungi (SOTWPF) report. Conserving this biodiversity is crucial, and for that we need legal frameworks which prevent exploitation of the world’s plants and fungi, and allows researchers to access and undertake research on these important genetic resources. In Chapter 10 of the SOTWPF Report and in the accompanying Plants People Planet article, as well as in the final session of the SOTWPF Virtual Symposium, the authors and panelists examined how these legal frameworks can help or hinder scientific research, and made recommendations for conservation policy moving forward.

How does conservation policy help?

A lot of scientific research on biodiversity depends on scientists around the world being able to access genetic resources of plants and fungi. However, this must be done in a way that supports and promotes the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s biodiversity, and benefits the people and environment of the country which has provided that genetic resource. All of this requires effective legislation and conservation policies.

You might already be familiar with some of the current legal frameworks centred on plant and fungi conservation, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) established in 1975. CITES aims to prevent international trade from threatening the survival of wild plants and animals, and currently covers roughly 30,000 plant species. Fungi are also broadly covered by CITES, though no fungi species have yet been listed. To accommodate scientific research, the Registered Scientific Institute (RSI) Scheme allows registered organisations to share genetic resources freely with each other without requiring permits. Globally, 857 scientific institutions are currently registered with the CITES Secretariat through RSI.

There’s also the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) established in 1992, which aims to conserve biological diversity, and promote sustainable use of biodiversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources (see Figure 1). Tied in with CBD is the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, which provides some pointers for how countries can frame their legislation, and ensures compliance through the issuing of permits. When the relevant details of these permits are uploaded to an online Access and Benefit-Sharing Clearing House, an Internationally Recognized Certificate of Compliance (IRCC) is provided in return.

A discussion of policy examined the the benefits and costs of conservation for scientific research.
Ideally, under Access and Benefit-Sharing mechanisms, when a genetic resource is accessed from the wild for research purposes, any resulting commercial benefits (e.g. from the production of a new crop or medicine from that genetic resource) or non-commercial benefits (e.g. conservation assessments, capacity building, training) go back to the country which provided the genetic resource to support conservation. Source: State of the World’s Plants and Fungi Report.

How does conservation policy hinder?

While there is widespread acceptance of these legal frameworks, CITES and CBD have also been criticised as being overly complex, costly, and time-consuming, resulting in a hindrance to scientific research on biodiversity. For example, in the Plants, People, Planet article on conservation policy, a survey of the CITES Authorities in 28 countries found that while all Parties felt it was important to register institutions involved in species conservation, they reported difficulties in using the RSI scheme and there were differences in the way each Party interpreted the RSI scheme’s language. In addition, twenty countries were assessed for their compliance with CBD and Access and Benefit-Sharing legislation, and of these twenty countries, only eleven had introduced simplified measures for the access of genetic material and eight had registered IRCCs (59% for non-commercial purposes and 41% for commercial uses). 

During the SOTWPF Virtual Symposium, Dr Manuela da Silva from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), Brazil, one of the co-authors on the Plants, People, Planet conservation policy article, discussed some of the challenges of Access and Benefit-Sharing legislations, particularly in protecting biodiversity without restricting research. She shared an interesting case study from Brazil, which has some of the world’s greatest biodiversity and is a hotspot for plant and fungi research, with 55,000 known species of plants alone. Brazil introduced Access and Benefit-Sharing legislation, which required foreign researchers to be associated with Brazilian institutions to be able to access Brazil’s genetic heritage. This requirement has hindered some research with Brazilian genetic resources that were deposited in biological collections by foreign researchers who had no scientific collaboration in Brazil. As Dr Manuela da Silva explains in the SOTWPF report, this decision “aims to promote more scientific development in the country. However, while this requirement may make sense in cases of applied research and technological development, in the case of basic research it has a negative result for Brazilian science, as we have been witnessing”. The reluctance to introduce simplified access measures covering all types of research may be indicative of concerns around being able to track and control genetic material once it has left the country of origin. “Overcoming this would require compliance procedures in the user country that are trusted by the provider country,” the SOTWPF report states.

No time to waste: looking to the future of conservation policies

So what should we do moving forward? As the SOTWPF report and virtual symposium made clear: when it comes to plant and fungi conservation, business as usual is not an option. In order to understand, catalogue, and conserve our immense global biodiversity, we need to improve and standardise legislative frameworks, and streamline the processes which allow scientists around the world to share genetic materials for scientific research and conservation. This would encourage research in CITES-listed and non-listed species and their use, with the benefits of this research being returned to the countries of origin. In order for more countries to embrace these Conventions, and for the Conventions to work effectively, nurturing greater trust between governments, institutions, and researchers is key. 

During the SOTWPF Virtual Symposium, panelists discussed possible alternatives for the future of conservation policy. Prof Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, suggested that it may be time to re-think the expansion of Access and Benefit-Sharing schemes, arguing that important biodiversity research is currently being impeded by clunky legislations. In a recent article in Science Magazine, her and her co-authors suggest that “Efforts focused not on the monetary considerations, but on promoting more inclusive innovation and greater equity in biodiversity research and commercialization, and broader public and social benefits from the outcomes of science, are likely to have a greater impact over time”. 

In addition, Ana María Hernández from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Colombia, suggested the following interventions for transformative change: (1) incentives and capacity building, (2) cross-sectoral cooperation, (3) pre-emptive and precautionary action, (4) decision-making for resilient social-ecological systems, and (5) strengthening environmental law and implementation. Finally, Tony Juniper CBE from Natural England, UK, summarised the session, and suggested that we need to widen the concept of benefit-sharing beyond the mere exploitation of resources. The concept of benefit-sharing should also recognise and highlight the intrinsic and ecological values of plants and fungi, their cultural, spiritual and aesthetic values in enriching human lives, and the vital roles they play in human societies and economies.

To find out more, download the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report. Conservation policy was the focus of the tenth chapter of this report and the final session of the SOTWPF Symposium, based on research published in the journal Plants, People, Planet. The SOTWPF report was compiled by 210 researchers from 42 countries to provide an in-depth look at how we can protect and sustainably use the world’s plants and fungi for the benefit of people and the planet. Recorded live streams of the SOTWPF Virtual Symposium are available to view online here.

Laura Skates

Laura Skates is a botanist and science communicator from Western Australia. Her research focuses on the unusual nutritional ecology of carnivorous plants in their natural habitats, and her passions include conservation, botanical art, floral fashion, and literally anything else plant-related. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @floraskates

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