State of the World’s Plants

31 May 2016

By Richard Deverell – Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew recently published the first annual report on the State of the World’s Plants, alongside an international science and policy symposium on the topic. Kew’s Director, Richard Deverell reflects on how it all began and why the work is so important.

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Photo: Andre Dib

Why not plants?

Birds, amphibians, mammals have all been done – but not plants?  Why?

This was the simple question posed by Mike McCarthy, a writer and journalist, when Kathy Willis (Kew’s Director of Science) and I met him at Kew Gardens two years ago.

That was when the seed that became ‘State of the World’s Plants’ was planted – and I think we all owe Mike a debt of gratitude for his simple but important observation.

There was an important gap, one that Kew, working with our partners, could fill.

As ever in science – and in life generally – it is just as important to know what you don’t know as much as to know what you do know.

Science progresses only by individuals with imagination and curiosity asking questions – and then doing the hard work to answer them.

Answering simple but important questions

The fundamental premise of this report is that it aims to start to answer some simple but important questions about plant diversity.  For example:

  • How many vascular plant species are known to science and how do we know this?
  • How is climate change affecting plant species and communities?
  • How many plants do we think are threatened with extinction?
  • What areas of the world are most important to protect due to extraordinary plant diversity?

This report and the accompanying symposium is our attempt to answer these questions.

Themes

Kew aspires to be the global resource for plant and fungal knowledge. 

The State of the World’s Plants – to me – exemplifies this ambition.

Let me expand upon that by outlining some themes that have run through this project.

Reliable and timely information

Firstly, it is about the provision of reliable and timely information.

This is the very foundation of all plant science.  A ‘resource’ implies that we are providing something of value to others – that it is useful and will be used.  I am confident that is the case with the SOTWPs – it provides a foundation of knowledge for all of us to build upon.

Collaborative effort

Secondly, this report would not have happened without the invaluable contribution from our many partners.  This was a collaborative effort.

Many different organisations have been involved in producing the report and 90 different academic institutions were represented at the symposium.  I am delighted that Kew is working openly and successfully in this way with a spirit of mutual respect and trust.

Building understanding

The report, and the stories it contains, are accessible.  By that I mean it will have a reach and resonance beyond the science and conservation communities.

This is essential.  We have a crucial role to build the public’s understanding of why plants matter – and why therefore they merit protection and conservation.  This, in turn, will shape the policy and legislative agenda.  I assure you that we at Kew will work hard to ensure the insights and stories in the State of the World’s Plants are widely communicated to our visitors at both sites, our members and – put frankly – anyone else we can reach!

Timely and urgent

The fourth and final theme I wanted to note was that this report is timely – if not urgent.

I usually, at this point, say that it’s essential that Kew’s work is seen as ‘relevant’.  However, ‘relevant’ feels too tame and limp to convey what I believe is the burning urgency of the issues we have covered will continue to cover.

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Photo: Jeff Eden

Media coverage

For this reason I was absolutely staggered – and delighted – to see the prominence of the coverage achieved when we published the report.  I hope all of us can take heart in that.  For example, some of the messages about plant conservation made the front page of the Financial Times and many local and international news outlets.  But – of course – we have to keep up the pressure and continue to bang the drum.

Understanding, caring and protecting

You may know that Sir David Attenborough was a Trustee of RBG Kew.  He talks with unique authority and eloquence about the need to understand the natural world because only by understanding will an individual care, and only by caring will they seek to protect.  Put simply – he argues, and I agree – that there is a direct causal link between understanding, caring and protecting.  I was reminded of this comment on reading the first draft of the State of the Worlds Plants – it builds understanding.  That is the first and vital step.

Sir David is also the source of another quote I rather like:

‘Institutions like Kew are at the forefront of the battle to save the planet’. 

Normally I don’t like military metaphors – they are a bit macho for me!  However, this one is justified.  It is a battle and the consequences of failure will be far more catastrophic and enduring than any military conflict.

How might the battle be won?

Well, my answer would be some combination of the following:

  • the presentation of robust and scientifically valid evidence that not only sets out the scale and nature of the challenge – but also the potential solutions
  • winning first the engagement and then the support of both the public and the policy community with these issues
  • a large dollop of determination, persistence and courage.

We can and will make a vital contribution to winning this battle.

Kew – a global voice for plants

I would like to end where I started – back with Mike McCarthy.  I mentioned he is a journalist and earlier in May he wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian that struck me rather forcibly.  If I may, I wanted to quote from the concluding paragraph:

‘But what the State of the World’s Plants report does more than anything is to make Kew, at a stroke, a global voice for plants. There has been no such voice until now.

It’s important to recognise that. Kew may be the world’s most celebrated and prestigious botanical garden, but its identity has long consisted of two elements: as a centre of excellence in plant science and a major visitor attraction.

As the first, of course, it has always had worldwide influence, but it has never shouted out loudly, as an advocate, for all the plants of the Earth. There has been no need to before. But there is now. And Kew has the unique authority to do it.’

May I assure everyone that RBG Kew will absolutely do all it can to be a global advocate for all the plants of the earth.

Follow #SOTWP for twitter updates on the State of the World’s Plants, or catch up on the best tweets with Kew Science’s Storify.

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