What are humans doing to plants?

Before we move on to look at trees and forests, I want to look at what we are doing to plants worldwide.

In a study of 30,000 plants…

  • Over 15,000 are used in medicine
  • Over 10,000 are used as materials
  • Over 7,000 have environmental uses
  • Over 5,000 are human foods
  • About 2,500 are used as poisons
  • About 2,000 are sources of fuel
  • About 1,500 have social uses such as tobacco, cannabis etc

In addition to the uses above, plants are used to feed wild and domesticated animals, used in dyeing, in cosmetics, to write on etc.  We even use information about plants to help solve crimes!

We are dependent on around 30 crop plants for our survival, with 80% of our food coming from 17 plant families.  These are plants which we have shaped and transformed into useful food but that leaves them open to disease and any disease has significantly more impact on both the crop and on human food sources.  We have changed, modified and prioritised some species over others.

And yet…

Despite all these vital ways we use plants, we experience plant blindness.  There is a major disconnect between the way we think about plants and how important they are to us.  To this end, they are underappreciated and over exploited.

Further, plants aren’t cool. They aren’t cute and we teach about them in a really boring way which results in less concern and awareness about their extinction.  When was the last time you heard a campaign about endangered animals?  And the last time you heard about endangered plants?

  • Between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 129 million hectares of forest, equivalent to the size of south Africa
  • Wild plants are increasingly endangered with a fifth of the world’s wild plants threatened with extinction.

There are many threats to plants, many of which we cause directly and many of which are side effects of our activities:

  • Climate change; changes in temperature and weather patterns affect plants directly but also the animals which they rely on for pollination which affects future generations of plants.
  • Changes to habitat, eg deforestation, the planting of mono forests and mono crops means less resistance to disease and reduced biodiversity, habitat loss, fragmentation of species, changes in land use, over exploitation of land
  • Loss of biodiversity has a knock on effect on species by reducing the resilience of an ecosystem which can in tern reduce biodiversity further
  • Pollution, contaminants and fertilisers kill and harm plants
  • Water sources; rising sea levels affects plant life as does manipulation of water flow including intentional flooding and flood control methods
  • Erosion removes the fertile top soil which makes it harder for plants to grow, this is another vicious circle as having a good range of plants in a habitat can prevent or reduce erosion
  • Invasive species of plants and animals; leads to competition and predation which the plants aren’t evolved to fight
  • Fire suppression
  • Hard standing such as concrete wipe out areas of plants and plant habitat
  • Reduced global distances mean diseases and species spread more rapidly. For example, in 1620 it took the mayflower 2 months to cross the Atlantic, by 1850s this was just two weeks and today you can cross in less than a day.  Where in the past, plants would often die before the plant reached the destination, today the case is very different
  • Collectors demand for illegal and exotic plants causes issues for plant population. These tend to be rare, geographically specific plants such as orchids which are removed from their habitat.  At heathrow, they make at least one seizure a day, 42% of which are orchids being illegally imported.

Non-human threats also exist such as landslides and other catastrophes which can wipe out rare species at once.  There is also the risk of inbreeding and cross fertilisation which occur naturally but are probably being speeded up and made more likely by human activity.

The plants that we are killing off could well be tomorrows food supply or ground breaking medical discovery.  Losing certain species would also leave some highly specialised animal species significantly more vulnerable.  If you don’t want to protect plants for their own, wonderful selves, do it for the animals who depend on them.

Perhaps you could learn a few names of local species and take part in the wild flower hunt.  Plant some native species in your garden or leave a corner to grow wild, both options will attract butterflies and other pollinators into your garden.

It’s easy to think that plant loss is a far off problem caused by logging and illegal poaching, but it is happening here in the UK.  Britain’s wild flowers are being lost at a rate of up to nearly one species per year per county, and the rate of loss is accelerating.

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