Today’s post is all about getting you to think about your dependence on plants. Plants tend to be a silent bunch, enduring whatever nature throws their way without much protest. Yet, they are the foundation of our biological system. They provide us with so many useful things- food, shelter, clothing, fuel, medicines etc. Despite their importance to our lives, we tend to take them for granted. As a rule, plants aren’t very assertive and they lag in the cuteness department compared to baby seals and rhinos. So, they tend to be invisible to us. We don’t generally hold benefits or 5K’s in their honor, and plants don’t have an awareness ribbon.
So, let’s make today Plant Appreciation Day. Your homework assignment is to make a list of all the plant products you use for a day or longer if you would like.* You don’t have to e-mail it to me or post it in the comments section below (unless you just want to for bonus points). A mental list is fine. Just be aware of the plants in your life.
Can’t think of anything just now? Take a deep breath. That oxygen was brought to you by the Earth’s photosynthetic organisms. You’re welcome. I’m also sitting at a wooden table with cotton cloth covered chair cushions while drinking apple juice. You get the idea.
Now imagine if those plants didn’t exist. What if only one type of plant went extinct? What if it were coffee? There would be massive rioting in the streets. Plant diseases are major threats to our global food system. There have been a couple of recent articles related to plant disease that highlight our constant struggle against plant pathogens. One is on citrus greening, a bacterial disease that is decimating our citrus groves. The bacteria are spread by flies, and growers need to use more pesticides to keep it at bay. Even with the extra chemical warfare, orange groves are suffering. Since no natural resistance has been found in our citrus varieties and dramatic losses are occurring at an alarming rate, the only hope for saving our orange juice may be a transgenic solution.** Another article is from Aeon Magazine by Ed Yong about diseases of cocoa trees that are spread by ants and their mealybug herds. Cocoa = chocolate. Yes, there may be a looming problem with the chocolate supply. Here’s a great quote from that article to put plant disease in perspective:
‘We’re set up for catastrophe, and we’re not talking about it,’ Hughes told me. He blames our urbanised culture. With so much time spent away from the natural world, and so many steps between our farms and our plates, we have lost a tangible connection with what we eat. ‘We live in a land of milk and honey. We’re so divorced from our food that we’re not even knowledgeable enough to be scared about the problems in getting it. We’re not thinking about the next AIDS of plants.’
But it’s not the plants alone that we have to worry about. While the above examples showed the problems that insects can cause for our plants, there are also plenty of beneficial insects that plants need. The most obvious plant-friendly insects are bees, but the news isn’t so great on that front either. We are losing our bees at an alarming rate. Check out this recent post by Paige Brown at SciLogs that summarizes the different causes contributing to bee population decline. Here’s another article describing how the loss of just one type of pollinator will negatively affect plant pollination. In case you are unconvinced of the importance of bees, check out this graphic that Whole Foods put together to show you what your produce section would look like without them.
So while you are appreciating the plants you use every day, take the time to appreciate the scientists that have also been working silently along side them.
*Some of my fellow plant biologists are already ahead of the game, since they have been working on this assignment during the annual ASPB (American Society of Plant Biologists) this year #PlantBiology2013.
**I recommend reading the article before making any decisions on the existence of GMO oranges. It also has nothing to do with Monsanto. But, on that note, I will be doing a series of posts on GMOs next week. So save any GMO-specific comments for those posts.