Why diversity is a good thing for the natural world and for us

On my last fieldtrip to Peru my fellow botanists and I were given a wonderful and colourful welcome by the school and teaching staff in Yunga, a community that really celebrates the importance of cultivation of traditional crops and the harvesting of wild medicinal plants. In the welcome ceremony I was given the traditional hat to wear and really felt the commitment of the community to work with scientists on a new project to find ways to conserve their natural and cultural heritage. It highlighted to me that everyone can play their part in transforming our relationship with the natural world, something I have been passionate about my whole life.

I grew up surrounded by beautiful landscapes of the Exmoor National Park in the south west of England and was interested in the natural world from a very young age. I felt deeply concerned about the National Park’s future so as a second-year biology student I found a summer job helping botanists to monitor the response of heathland vegetation to grazing and burning management. I quickly realized that I could identify native plants and saw first-hand the real benefits in using plant data to inform vital decision making. I became hooked on plants and that propelled me into a long career at one of the greatest plant science institutions in the world – the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Starting off as a ‘Seed Collector’ for the Americas I went on many long and sometimes arduous expeditions and ended up at the Millennium Seed Bank which opened in 2000 and leads the largest and most ambitious plant conservation initiative in the world. The seed bank is an insurance policy against loss of species to climate change and land degradation, and is currently home to over 2.3 billion seeds, representing over 40,000 different species. From there, I have continued to focus on my passion, which is plant conservation work in the Americas.

Biodiverse Peru - medicines and Andean tubers

A real jewel of the Americas is Peru, one of the world’s megadiverse countries. From the Amazon to the sierra of the Andes, and in the deserts, there are 19,000 plant species to study and explore, making it a real treat for scientists like me as well as an area of global significance.

Kew has been working with local companies and communities to help restore important habitats that have been damaged and to conserve wild relatives of important plants such as potatoes and Andean tubers, for which Peru  is famous. Our research in Peru helps build understanding of plant diversity across the neotropics, its evolution and its conservation challenges. Peru’s tremendous cultural diversity provides a window on the many ways that people have depended on plants for food and healthcare, and an understanding of the values that communities place on their local wild plants helps us come up with workable conservation solutions.

Did you know that 80% of the Peruvian population use medicinal plants in their healthcare? So it’s crucial to protect these plants now to safeguard them from future threats.  Kew’s most recent project in Peru, in collaboration with the Intercultural Health Centre of the Instituto Nacional de Salud, is focussed on the conservation of native medicinal plants from the highlands of southern Peru in Moquegua and is just one of many efforts being made by groups to reverse the loss of vital knowledge and species.

The heat is on

My plant conservation work focuses on regions where there is a threat to biodiversity– which is the number and variability of living organisms together with the interactions between them. Biodiversity conservation is the largest driving force behind Kew’s scientific mission and why it’s so important that more people understand the impact of its loss.

Variation – or diversity – is an excellent thing, it allows the natural world to adapt to changing environmental conditions and to respond to sudden shocks. For example, if we allow our food system to just grow a handful of varieties of the most popular crops, or our forests to be transformed to a single species of timber tree in a region, then our society, and our economy, becomes incredibly vulnerable. What would happen if we were to suddenly lose these key species due to pests and disease or environmental changes?

Biodiversity loss is as much of a concern – or perhaps more of one – than climate change to our natural world right now. Climate change is already showing its initial effects from the melting of glaciers in the Andes, to the terrifying increase in wildfires in California this year.  We can, however, limit the worst effects of climate change by taking resolute action now to switch to low impact agriculture, renewable energy production, and by acting collaboratively with the international community. But not everybody knows that the loss of biodiversity has already reached emergency levels. Research published earlier this year from Kew showed that plant extinction is occurring hundreds of times faster  than natural rates of extinction. We are losing the legacy that has been provided to us – the legacy that could have assured future generations a productive and healthy planet, resilient to future changes.

Just like the people that I met in Yunga are doing, I believe that everyone can play their part in celebrating our planet’s wonderful biodiversity and hope many more will join me on this journey.

Michael Way is an ecologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He will appear at the Kew Platform during Hay Festival Arequipa on Saturday 9 November. Visit here for tickets and find out more about the Kew Platform at Hay Festival here.