It’s a truly worldwide plan; the countries that have the highest number of wild plant cousins are Brazil, China, and India, while the countries with the highest concentration of them are Azerbaijan, Portugal and Greece. The benefits that this cross-breeding programme could have in developing countries in particular could be indispensable as world population growth reaches over nine billion.
However, despite this global spread of crop wild relatives, they’re being threatened by a wide array of environmental antagonists. Most of these are down to humanity’s intrusion, be it through land-use change, global warming, pollution, war and the intensification of agriculture. The Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is working alongside partners that run breeding programmes around the world and save these hearty wild cousins in the next several years.
Using plants as medicine
This isn’t anything new – the use of plants is medicine has been known since time immemorial. But are we being too slow to register new uses?
Over 28,000 plant species are currently recorded as being of medicinal use, but fewer than 16% of them are cited in a medicinal regulatory publication. When the World Health Organization last estimated the plant-based medicinal industry’s worth in 2012, it totalled a mind-boggling $83bn (£62bn).
The industry is growing increasingly popular; in Germany, around 90% of the population use herbal medicines that are derived from plants such as foxglove and garlic. But one major problem, of course, is that health regulators are keen to stop the proliferation of unsafe or phony products entering the market; a lazy approach to authentication has already meant that herb names have been confused with those with similar sounding names and patients have ended up ingesting a wildly inappropriate (and potentially lethal) drug.
China is one country trying to stop this. In December 2016, Chinese government officials announced their aim to integrate more traditional Chinese medicine into their healthcare system by 2020, as well as presenting detailed illustrations and descriptions of the source plants to stop any future confusion happening.
If we’re to utilise plants to their full life-saving potential,the researchers make urgent recommendations: sourcing plants from sustainable resources, cultivating them, introducing reliable traceability procedures and secure more effective quality control.
Bananas on steroids
Well, not quite bananas. The enset is a member of the banana family that has been cultivated in Ethiopia for tens of thousands of years – the Ethiopians in fact have over 200 names for it – and it has several different uses. As well as being a staple crop in Africa it can make rope, medicine, shelter, animal feed and clothes, not to mention also providing an ideal microclimate for coffee plants to flourish in. It withstands drought, heavy rain and flooding. Basically – is there anything that this ‘false banana’ can’t do?
Scientists have been investigating where else this climate-smart plant could be grown elsewhere, particularly in other African regions and in countries that face famines. It feeds more people per square metre of crop than most cereals and is made into three foods – a sour-tasting dough, soups and porridges, and a boiled root similar to a potato.