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Why plant blindness poses an increasing threat amidst a changing climate

Plant blindness is a term first used 20 years ago by researchers who noticed that people are becoming disconnected from the plant kingdom and unable to identify the plants that make up our natural world.

These days, people are having a harder and harder time even naming the plants that go into the food we eat every day as global diets shift from plant-based to processed. Meanwhile, we may lose thousands of plants in the future due to climate change.

Researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) say that people need to be made aware of losses in plant biodiversity and conservation campaigns need to focus as much attention on plant declines as they do on land and marine animals.

In a paper published in the journal Plants, People, Planet, the researchers outline several recommendations for curing plant blindness and ensuring our natural world is protected.

Part of plant blindness is not understanding the crucial value that plants have to the environment, economy, and culture. We eat plants as food, they clean our air and provide oxygen for us to breath, and many medicines use natural compounds found in plants.

“Unfortunately, we’re losing species faster than we can study and account for them,” said Tara Moreau, a co-author of the study. “Plant extinction should not be an option, and public education is key.”

Thousands valuable plants worldwide are at risk of extinction, and nowhere is plant blindness more apparent than on our own dinner plates.

“But despite the blindness even in these food plants, they still represent an excellent and particularly powerful medium to connect people to plants, biodiversity, and conservation,” said Colin Khoury, a co-author of the study. “Food is a great way to educate ourselves about our own histories, and to understand how plants connect us around the world.”

In the study, the researchers highlight the important role that botanic gardens and seed banks can play not only in future plant preservation, but also in connecting people to plants.

There are 3,500 botanic gardens in the world and these house one-third of all known plant species. More than 60,000 horticulturists, taxonomists, and plant experts work in botanic gardens promoting conservation and education.

Botanic gardens are also often popular tourist destinations that allow people a glimpse at rare flora not easily accessible otherwise.

CIAT is working on creating a visitor-friendly gene bank to further educate people on the importance of plants and seed biobanks.

Conservation strategies and campaigns should utilize botanic gardens and seed banks to help ensure plant biodiversity persists and fight plant blindness.

“In an era confronted by many global problems such as climate change, habitat destruction, plant and animal extinctions, population explosion, hunger and poverty, we cannot afford to ignore plant blindness any longer,” said Sarada Krishnan, a fellow co-author of the study. “Without plants there is no life. We need to rewrite the plant narratives to bring plants front and center. For this, we need to craft new approaches to attract the next generation to the plant sciences.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Krishnan et al.

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