Worldwatch Paper #148: Nature's Cornucopia: Our Stake in Plant Diversity

September 1999
John Tuxill
ISBN: 1-878071-50-5
85 pages

Earth's natural systems increasingly display signs of the ecological costs imposed by our globalizing society, from large-scale declines in thousands of species, to growing infestations of non-native organisms, and to the widespread simplification of natural communities. By examining the benefits we obtain from one group of organisms--green plants--author John Tuxill shows just how much we stand to lose if the erosion of nature's diversity continues unabated.

A rich and diverse base of plants supports human welfare in many ways. Plant breeders draw on the genetic diversity of crops to create new varieties that are more productive and resistant to disease. More than 80 percent of the world's people take plant-derived herbal medicines to help them stay healthy. The world's rural poor rely on plant products for up to 90 percent of their material needs. Yet in exploiting the benefits of plant diversity we all too often degrade it, as when changes in agricultural practices lead to the loss of traditional crop varieties, or when useful wild plants are overharvested.

Protecting plant diversity begins with gene banks and protected areas, but Tuxill argues that it also means revitalizing diversity in the landscapes where we grow our food and fiber. It requires creating new partnerships between governments and agencies responsible for managing plant resources and the local communities who rely on them for their livelihood. And it means setting guidelines for sharing the benefits of plant diversity equitably--just as we all share the obligation of maintaining it.