(CN) – While the ongoing extinction of animals deserves continued attention, researchers said Friday the decline of plant species should command just as much consideration, if not more, since plants are key to preserving both biodiversity and the human race.
In a study published Friday in the scientific journal Plants, People, Planet, researchers contend the lack of empathy for plants is a result of societal disconnection from the land, a condition marked by the masses of people who embrace urban living and the decline of those who take on agricultural work.
That plants clean the air, sustain life, provide medicine and construction materials and remediate soil should be proof enough that they provide unparalleled economic, gastronomic, cultural and environmental benefits to both people and the planet, the study said.
But after a United Nations report earlier this month found that over 1 million species of wildlife face extinction due to human activity, researchers said more concern was expressed for the loss of animals then for the ongoing extinction of plant species.
“Much attention focused on loss of animals – particularly the rhinos and other large charismatic ones,” researchers said in a statement. “But the decline of plants should be just as unnerving.”
Study co-author Colin Khoury of International Center for Tropical Agriculture said in a statement that detachment from plants builds as more people eat packaged or processed meals, which tend to erase the origins of our food.
“Plant blindness exists even for the food plants we eat every day,” Khoury said. “But despite the blindness even in these food plants, they still represent an excellent and particularly powerful medium to connect people to plants, biodiversity and conservation.”
People’s diets around the world are actually becoming more identical or “standard,” according to Khoury, whose recent study on hamburgers found that no ingredients in a traditional burger originate from North America.
“Food is a great way to educate ourselves about our own histories, and to understand how plants connect us around the world,” said Khoury, whose past work has shown that more than 7,000 plants are at risk of extinction.
The study said societies need to build seed banks and expand education at botanic gardens as part of a larger effort to conserve wildlife and prevent against plant extinction.
The Denver Botanic Gardens has expanded plant education programs for families and offered vocational training through its Veterans Farm Program in an effort to attract the “next generation” of plant science students, Sarada Krishnan, the garden’s director of horticulture, said in a statement.
“In an era confronted by many global problems such as climate change, habitat destruction, plant and animal extinctions, population explosion, hunger and poverty, we cannot afford to ignore plant blindness any longer,” said Krishnan. “Without plants there is no life. We need to rewrite the plant narratives to bring plants front and center.”
Some seed banks – such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway – can allow for seeds to survive hundreds of thousands of years.
A new seed bank called Future Seeds will house the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s collection of 68,000 beans, tropical forage and cassava seeds and will eventually provide “backup copies” to the Svalbard vault.
University of British Columbia researcher Tara Moreau said the world is losing plant species faster than scientists can study them.
“Plant extinction should not be an option, and public education is key,” Moreau said.