Plants for food at risk: Useful Plants Indicator shows wide range of trees “poorly protected”

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26 Nov 2018 --- Wild coffee plants and cacao trees are surprisingly poorly protected – that is the assertion from the Columbia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). New data strongly suggest that international conservation targets for 2020 will not be met, while a new way of measuring plant conservation shows a wide range of wild plants used for food, medicine, shelter, fuel, livestock forage and other valuable purposes are at risk, reports CIAT.

Urgent action is needed to protect thousands of useful wild plants, claims the organization, which helps developing countries make farming more competitive, profitable and resilient through smarter and more sustainable natural resource management.

It says that wild species of cacao plants closely related to the tree cultivated to make chocolate are among thousands of commonly used plants which are poorly protected.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Michelle End, of the Cocoa Research Association, explains how the industry is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of cacao genetic resources to the sustainability of the sector.

“The industry is also becoming aware of the threats posed to both wild diversity and the materials that are currently conserved in collections,” she says. 

“Representatives from the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) and Cocoa Research Association Ltd (CRA), an industry-supported scientific research association based in the UK, as well as individual companies in the cacao sector, are actively involved in global efforts to better understand the status of cacao genetic resources and what must be done to ensure they remain accessible for use in breeding programs today and long into the future.”

“We are part of CacaoNet – the global network for cacao genetic resources coordinated by Bioversity International, which has developed a Global Strategy for the Conservation and use of cacao genetic resources. Bioversity International, CRA and WCF are working together on an initiative to secure long-term support from a wide funding base for the cacao genetic resources effort.”

According to CIAT, the range of at-risk plants also includes kitchen-cupboard staples like vanilla, chamomile, cacao and cinnamon, wild relatives of crops like coffee and non-cultivated plants used by bees to make honey.

The indicator – developed by CIAT in collaboration with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the US Department of Agriculture and a number of universities and conservation organizations – equally weighs in situ plant conservation in protected areas like national parks. It also examines ex-situ conservation, which covers plants safeguarded in gene banks, botanical gardens, and other conservation repositories.

The Useful Plants Indicator scores almost 7,000 useful wild plants from 220 countries on a scale of 1-100, with 100 being meaningfully protected. Any plant rated 75 or higher is “sufficiently conserved.” Low, medium and high priority for conservation is reflected by scores of 74-50, 49-25 and 24-0, respectively.

The indicator finds that less than 3 percent of the 7,000 evaluated species are presently classified as “low priority” or “sufficiently conserved.”

The authors of the new research claim this is worrying since the indicator was designed to measure countries’ progress towards ambitious conservation goals that are expected to be met by 2020, including the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Target 13 and Sustainable Development Goal 2.5.

“This indicator underscores the urgency to protect the world's useful wild plants,” says Colin Khoury, the study's lead author and a biodiversity specialist at CIAT, based in Colombia.

“The indicator not only helps us measure where countries and the world stand with regard to safeguarding this natural and cultural heritage, but it also provides actual information per species that can be used to take action to improve their conservation status.”

The findings will be published in the Ecological Indicators journal next March and an online version of the study was published earlier this month, while a digital Useful Plants Indicator used to explore the results was launched by CIAT last week. 

The Biodiversity Indicators Partnership of the Convention on Biological Diversity is considering adopting the indicator as a tool to measure progress toward the Aichi Targets.

How do coffee, cacao and vanilla plants fare?


Coffea liberica, a wild coffee plant that is used to make a caffeinated brew in parts of Africa and sought by coffee breeders for its disease resistance characteristics, scores only 32.3 out of 100 on the indicator.

The wild ancestor of the connoisseur’s preferred bean, C. arabica, does not fare much better, scoring 33.8. Of the 32 coffee species listed, none scores higher than 35.3. Of those, more than two-thirds have no known viable genetic material stored in gene banks or other repositories.

Cacao, chamomile and Gingko

Theobroma cacao, the wild ancestor of chocolate native to the tropical Americas, scores 35.4. Wild natural remedy plants such as valerian (Valeriana officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and the famous Chinese remedy Ginkgo biloba score 29.1, 27.8 and 26.7, respectively.

America’s pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), stands at 25.4, at the cusp between high and medium priority status, while vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) and cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) score 39.8 and 23.0.

Most, but not all, of these plants are weighed down to their lack of ex-situ conservation, says Khoury, who also expected lower results for plants in natural settings, which makes the 40.7 average in situ score surprising.

However, the researchers cautioned that relying on plant preservation strictly in natural protected areas is no longer a sure bet. This is because rapid climate change can force species to shift ranges beyond park borders and the edges of many protected areas are subjected to unchecked habitat destruction. 

“The indicator shows that the network of protected areas around the world is doing something significant for useful plants,” adds Khoury. “But if we want to get serious about protecting these species, especially the ones that are vulnerable, we have a long way to go before they are fully protected,” he claims.

The idea to build the indicator came from international agreements to conserve the thousands of wild plants that provide valuable ecosystem and cultural services to humanity. These include the Convention on Biological Diversity, in particular, the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership (BIP) project “Mind the Gap,” which funded the project to produce the indicator for Aichi Target 13, as well as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Some call for the full safeguarding of this plant biodiversity by the end of this decade.

“There's no way we're going to hit these 2020 targets,” Khoury asserts.

FoodIngredientsFirst has also reached out to several companies involved in the cacao, chocolate and vanilla supply chains.

Which countries are leaders in conservation?

The indicator draws from 43 million plant records from almost every country. The combined indicator (both in-situ and ex-situ) shows that the world’s top useful wild plant conservationists are South Korea, Botswana and Chile.

Regional in situ conservation scores are highest in Northern Europe, which scores almost 90 out of 100 as a region. For the world's centers of biodiversity, South America's northern countries (Colombia, 72.9; Venezuela, 78.9; Ecuador, 70.6) and Central America's Panama (76) and Costa Rica (75.7) are among the leaders for the conservation of the evaluated plants in natural settings. China (26.3), India (24.3) and Southeast Asia (19.8) have some of the lowest regional in situ conservation scores.

Canada (35.3) and the US (36.5) lag behind all regions of Africa, which score from 42 to 59.7 on in situ conservation.

“In a time of worrying global biodiversity loss, the indicator has the potential to encourage conservationists and policymakers to keep tabs on useful wild plant species and to increase efforts to conserve them in situ and living repositories like gene banks and botanical gardens,” Khoury concludes.

By Gaynor Selby

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