SAVING SEEDS: Scientists scramble to collect seeds before species are lost to climate change and habitat destruction; however, experts fear that lack of funding and political strife may slow the process. Image: US DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
WAKEHURST PLACE, England -- Scientists at the Millennium Seed Bank in this idyllic rural area some 30 miles south of London are racing against time to gather seeds from as many of the world's plant species as they can before habitat loss and climate change erases them from the face of the Earth.
In the decade since they started, it has been an uphill struggle against tight budgets, political whims and local suspicion. Now the toxic combination of the global recession, the rise of the climate skepticism, the failure to advance a global treaty and empty government coffers risk making it far harder.
"We are almost certainly looking at cuts. Rather than just standing still at a time when we need to be moving forward faster, we are going backwards," seed bank head Paul Smith told ClimateWire. "The problems are urgent and becoming more urgent."
"This is a utilitarian drive, not a bunny-hugging one. The vast majority of modern medicines have their basis in plants. Yet only one-fifth of plant species have been screened for pharmaceutical use. Who knows what miracle cures might be out there waiting to be discovered? But we are already losing species," he said.
"One-third of our collection has a known use, and that excludes undiscovered uses. This is a very pragmatic project," he added. "We prioritize useful or known threatened species. There are 20 species in the bank that are extinct in the wild and many more that are thought to be."
This Noah's ark for the world's flora already has in its icy vaults a total of 2 billion seeds from 30,000 species gathered from around the world, held in trust for the countries from which they came.
That represents just 10 percent of the 300,000 species that scientists calculate the world to hold. Even that figure is a guess, and likely to be a low one, at that, as new species are described and discovered every year.
'No reason' to lose another plant species
With predictions of climate change accelerating, Smith aims to raise that to 25 percent, or a further 45,000 species, by 2020. It's a tall order in the current political and financial climate, but one he insists is not negotiable.
"Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail. The loss of species equals the loss of our ability to adapt, and we have to adapt because there is already climate change in the system. This is common sense, and it is for the common good," said Smith.
"The big issues facing us all are food security, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water security and climate change. We can't isolate ourselves from them. Plant-based solutions are part of these global environmental challenges.
"Technologically, there is absolutely no reason for us to lose another plant species. But with what is happening now, both financially and politically, it becomes increasingly likely that species will become extinct," he added.