Kew stresses need to take a global lead on research

Call made as Kew releases first-ever assessment of diversity of plants across the globe.

Willis: says that long-overdue report involved more than 80 scientists and will help to fill a critical knowledge gap - image: Jason Baron/BBC
Willis: says that long-overdue report involved more than 80 scientists and will help to fill a critical knowledge gap - image: Jason Baron/BBC

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew must lead the way in researching the global state of plants and the threats to their survival, according to Kew director of science Professor Kathy Willis.

On Tuesday (10 May), Kew released its State of the World's Plants report - the first assessment of the diversity of plants across the world, the threats they face and the policies in place to deal with those threats. This week RBG, Kew has also hosted a two-day science symposium covering the threats faced by plants.

Willis said the report, which involved more than 80 scientists and took a year to produce, is long-overdue and will help fill a critical knowledge gap. The ongoing project has guaranteed funding for five years thanks to a large donation from the Sfumato Foundation.

Kew's wider scientific research efforts have also been buoyed by an improving financial situation. At the end of 2015 Kew was in surplus for the first time in six years. That money will help to build up depleted reserves. Kew has also received an "unheard of" £130m Government settlement.

On top of a £50m grant for capital expenditure and maintenance, directors have been told the annual £20m grant from Defra is safe for the next four years. A spokesperson said that shows Defra recognises and validates the importance of the work Kew does globally.

An independent report into Kew's value, published in April, found the gardens offered £182m of economic value to the UK at a cost of just 90p per taxpayer. That did not take into account the value of its work internationally.

Willis said the gardens "could not ask for better" from Defra. "We've absolutely turned the corner in terms of funding. Defra are right behind us so that makes a huge difference. They get it and they've been very, very supportive. So the funding situation is very, very positive now - thank goodness, because we had obviously a rocky couple of years. But we, or rather (Kew director) Richard Deverell, has absolutely turned it round."

The State of the World's Plants research project will be repeated annually, allowing Kew to pinpoint trends in plant migration, adaptation and extinction. Willis suspects that those trends "will not look good" this time next year. "We spend an awful lot of effort trying to value plants as natural capital, but at the same time we can only value what we have, and in fact we're losing plants at such a fast rate right now."

Willis said she is depressed by how dispersed the data currently is, making information hard to access, but also potentially duplicating research efforts. "In the age of big data, this information should be out there in the publicly available domain. It's actually been a huge effort to get this information through. It's also true of plant names - they're spread across three or four different databases. We have to be thinking globally about how we start making this information available to the world at large."

Around 2,000 new species have been discovered in each of the past 10 years, Willis pointed out. "The positive news is that we still have got incredible resources like Kew, and like the other botanic gardens out there, which are prepared to do this basic taxonomic work, which is no longer being done by any of these research institutes. That's why it's absolutely fundamental that we still have 100 taxonomic experts over the road who have that skill set and are prepared to identify new species."

Kew "absolutely" has to lead the way in collating global research into plants, especially as traditional research institutions such as universities do not have the appetite, said Willis. "I hope next year it won't just be Kew (named on the report) - there will be other botanical institutes on here. But we needed to set a baseline. We needed to get going."

Key facts - State of the World’s Plants report

- There are 391,000 vascular plants known to science but more than one million plant names due
to duplications.
- There are around 31,000 species used by humans for medicine, food or materials.
- Just 139 species have had their genomes fully sequenced.
- Some 2,000 new plants are described annually, often discovered through unlikely sources. One of the largest carnivorous plants known, the 1.5m-tall Brazilian sundew called Drosera magnifica (pictured above), was recently discovered via a plant enthusiast’s Facebook post. It is critically endangered.
- More than 42 per cent of plants seized at Heathrow Airport last year were wild orchids.
- Some 21 per cent of plants are at risk of extinction, due to land-use change (particularly agriculture), plant disease, alien invasive plants or climate change.
- By the year 2100 up to 30 per cent of Africa’s maize- and banana-growing areas as well as 60 per cent of its bean-growing areas will probably not be viable.

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