In this age of globalization, countries have added other cultural practices into their lifestyle. The introduction of non-native plant species into the local ecosystems has caused many issues. This particular global exchange is threatening traditional plants and agricultural practices. For example, modern practices like genetically modified seeds, excessive use of pesticides and tree monoculture in plantations damages thousands of native species. Urbanization has also reduced green cover where cities are encroaching on agricultural lands and forests. So, what is so special about native species and what can be done to conserve them?
Native plants have adapted to the climate conditions of an area through years of evolution. They grow long roots that can tap water from water tables at relatively lower depth. Thus, they require less water which saves water, time and money. They can survive droughts and require less maintenance. Native plants are usually non-invasive. Having evolved with the community, they have natural predators that help to keep them in check. Native plants and wildlife have evolved together over centuries to form symbiotic relationships. They provide food and shelter to various butterflies, birds and mammals. In return, insects, birds and mammals help in pollination. Non-native species disturb the local food web. This can even cause the extinction of plant and animal species. It is a well-recognized fact that the bee population is declining. Bees provide their essential service to get food on our tables. Without them, humans will have to resort to artificially pollinating plants. So, it is necessary to bring focus on native plants and traditional practices.
Local Ecological Knowledge & Traditional knowledge
For centuries, humans have depended on biological resources in their area for food, medicine, and other purposes. Through observation, experimentation, and practices they developed local ecological knowledge (LEK). They also developed cultivation practices that are adapted to the climate, topography, soil, and water conditions of the region. This body of knowledge is known as traditional knowledge (TK). These were passed on from one generation to another. Now, people are moving away from traditional livelihoods. These knowledge banks are getting lost hence it is necessary to document them. Various organizations have started documenting local biodiversity and traditional practices to conserve them. One such example is the People’s Biodiversity Register in India.
People’s Biodiversity Register
The National Biodiversity Authority of India introduced the People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) in the early 2000s. The PBR is an initiative for the sustainable utilization and documentation of indigenous plant species. The register includes a list of biological resources and their importance. It is rooted in local communities and done with the consultation of locals. Members from the community participate in field studies, group discussions, detailed questionnaires, and training. Data is collected about crops, fruit plants, and trees, timber trees, medicinal plants, fodder crops, weeds, aquatic plants, waterscape, and soil type. Information is collected in the form of photos, drawings, audio, and visual recordings. The data is analyzed and validated to create an online knowledge bank.
These people’s biodiversity registers can be a unique guide for people to refer to and understand indigenous species in their area. Plants can be grown based on that knowledge. Food, nutrition and, livelihood security depend on the sustained management of diverse biological resources. Thus, the most important aspect of this initiative has been to document the agrobiodiversity.
The UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields. Agricultural biodiversity or agrobiodiversity is the result of the natural selection processes and inventive developments of farmers, herders, and fishers over the centuries. Agro-diversity is different for every region because it depends on the management of resources by the local community. It includes genetic resources of:
- harvested crop varieties that are used as food, fiber, and fodder.
- ‘companion crops’ that are useful in case of uncertain rainfall, pathogen infestation, and fluctuation in the price of cash crops
- non-harvested species that support production such as soil micro-organisms, insects and other pollinators, earthworms, etc.
- livestock and fish species
- other non-harvested species that support agricultural, pastoral, aquatic, forest ecosystems.
Many components of agrobiodiversity depend on humans and local knowledge is an integral part of agrobiodiversity management. Agrobiodiversity conservation includes setting up community seed banks, kitchen and community gardens. Farmers are encouraged to use indigenous seeds and adopt soil and water conservation techniques. Traditional varieties of seeds should be conserved for future use because they are more resilient to droughts and unpredictable weather conditions.
Seed Exchange and Seed Banks
Seed-saving communities keep their seed within a friendly active network. The seeds are regrown as a living seed bank evolving within the local conditions. Traditional varieties are generally more nutrient-dense than modified varieties. Local seeds resist pests and diseases. It is also possible to avoid spraying pesticides. They will remain adaptable to future changes. Local seeds will reduce the consumption of genetically engineered food.
Community seed banks are an important step in preserving and promoting agro-biodiversity. There are various organizations present worldwide that have started seed exchange programs. The North American Native Plant Society and The National Seeds Corporation Ltd.(India) are working on the national level. They formulate seed certification standards and perform seed testing. The purpose of the exchange is to make native plant seeds available to people at nominal cost. People can also contribute to this exchange by donating seeds. Seeds can be collected either from their garden or from the wild. It is important to select high-quality seeds for the exchange. Dr. Miyawaki has formed a large seed bank with more than 10 million seeds.
Long-term conservation of indigenous plant species can be done through the storage of seeds. A seed bank is a gene bank with seeds of different crops and rare plant species. The seeds are stored in seed vaults at temperatures below minus 4 degrees Celsius. This way they can be stored for centuries without damaging their genetic properties.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault was established and funded by the government of Norway. The facility is part of the international system for conserving plant diversity guided by the UN organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO). The seeds are placed in the chambers inside the frozen mountain and artificial cooling plants are keep the temperatures at a constant minus 18 degrees Celsius. The Millennium Seed Bank at Sussex, England is home to 2.4 billion seeds from all over the world. The seeds are collected through global partnerships and stored underground in sub-zero temperatures in flood, bomb, and radiation-proof vaults. Their mission is to save endemic and threatened plant species from extinction. These vaults contain backup seeds in case the original seeds are lost to natural disasters or mismanagement.
Native gardens to conserve local biodiversity
The role of conserving local biodiversity can be taken up by anyone. Not everyone is a farmer, but many are gardeners or have gardens. In many countries, the landscape style of neat yards and gardens has adversely affected the suburban ecology. While the gardens look aesthetic, they fail functionally. The gardens are filled with invasive species or local varieties that do not attract local biodiversity. There is an interconnection between native plants and native wildlife. Invasive plants can change soil conditions and steal pollinators from other plants. The solution to avoid this ‘backyard blunder’ is a simple one- to grow perennial trees, shrubs, and flowering plants. Gardens with native plants provide a welcoming environment for wildlife of all kinds. Two books-“Bringing Nature Home” (Douglas W. Tallamy) and “Noah’s Garden” (Sara Stein)- explain the ecology of gardens and present various recommendations for everyone to try. Drew Lathin suggests that adding even one native plant to the garden is a good start.
Native Plant Finder is a website that helps to find the native plants in any specific area. This database contains 3,200 references based on the scientific research of Dr. Douglas Tallamy and Research Assistant Kimberley Shropshire. The project was started in partnership with the United States Forest Service. The website contains information about each plant and what species of caterpillars, insects, and butterflies that plants attract. Similar websites and mobile apps can help to bridge the knowledge gap. They can inform more people about native plant species.
Native plants are part of the ecological heritage of any area. Conserving native plants is required now more than ever due to climate change. These plants will improve soil conditions and the water table. Buying and eating local plants will benefit the health of people. Eating local will reduce carbon emissions with the reduced transportation. People can use locally sourced oils instead of using palm oil that is cultivated by excessive deforestation of rainforests. Communities can also focus on plant-based materials. Bamboo grows easily in certain regions of the world and it is now being employed in architecture, furniture and everyday products. Similarly, banana, coconut, hemp and jute are used to create fiber for clothes. Plant-based materials utilize less water, energy, and result in less waste. Thus, native plants will help to make an easier transition to a circular economy.
Individuals can add a native plant to one’s garden or balcony. Plant nurseries are a great source for native plants and gardening information specific to any area. People can identify plants, learn about them, observe gardens and note the biodiversity that the plant attracts. Each community should take responsibility to collect stories and revive traditional practices. People of all ages should be welcome to participate in discussions. Essentially, humans need to create symbiotic relationship with plants just like that among bees and plants.