Reporter 422, 8 June 1998

Where the wild things are – research values loss of rare plants at close to £6 billion

Geography Research Fellow Oliver Phillips makes an unlikely insurance salesman as he picks up another picture of a rare plant and searches his computer database to find out just how endangered it is.

Yet Dr Phillips sees his research on the conservation of wild plants as part of one of the biggest insurance policies of all time. We depend on the plant world for food and medicine, and we need to conserve wild plants as insurance for the 21st century, he says.

As co-author of the first study to put a monetary value on the thousands of rare and endangered plant species in the USA, he is hoping governments around the world will sit up and take notice of the big bucks at stake.

The study, conducted jointly with Brien Meilleur of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, estimates the economic potential of endangered plants as $9 billion a year for the US food and pharmaceutical markets.

“The public tends to think we are losing oddities that might be interesting but don’t have much impact on society,” says Dr Phillips. These figures contradict that. Yet most conservation money goes into protecting animals, while plants tend to get short shrift both in the States and worldwide because they’ve got less sex appeal.

Such attitudes are a false economy, according to the research initiated when Dr Phillips worked at the Centre for Plant Conservation based at the Missouri Botanical Garden. He continued to work on the project after moving to the University of Leeds.

The findings suggest that two-thirds of the 3,214 rare or endangered plants in the USA are close relations of plants which are currently cultivated. Nobody knows what problems might affect the cultivated crops in the future, nor how the wild varieties might help by proving to be resistant to drought or flooding, for example.

Dr Phillips points to the way in which wild American grapevines saved the European wine industry from the ravages of a root-sucking louse at the end of the last century. Had the American wild vines been allowed to disappear beforehand, Europe’s wine industry might have followed them into oblivion.

More recently an almost-extinct walnut species was used to develop disease-resistant root stock without which there would be no walnut industry in California today. That industry is currently worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars a year.

It is not just the food and drink industries which owe much to wild plants. The recently developed ovarian cancer drug taxol was first found in the bark of the Pacific yew, another endangered species.

Twenty years ago nobody had a clue that it might have such a use, which shows the importance of conserving such plants as an insurance policy, says Dr Phillips. Who knows what problems might arise in the future, and what solutions might be found in these plants?

Dr Phillips is currently researching how tropical forests respond to global environmental changes.

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