Why we need plant scientists

‘Plant scientist’ should take its rightful place beside ‘doctor’, ‘lawyer’ and ‘vet’ in the list of top professions to which our most capable young people aspire, according to a hard-hitting letter by an international group of botanists and crop scientists.

The letter calls for a radical rethink of our approaches to plant science  research and underlines how, with the Earth’s growing human population, this often neglected branch of science is crucial to our long-term survival.

After an online consultation, the letter’s authors, who include plant scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the John Innes Centre, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Horticultural Society, universities, agriculture and industry have drawn up a list of 100 important questions that urgently need to be addressed by the next generation of plant biologists.

These include:

  1. How do we feed our children’s children?
  2. How can plants contribute to solving the energy crisis and ameliorating global warming?
  3. How can we attract the best young minds to plant science so they can address these grand challenges facing humanity?

The authors say: “Plants are fundamental to all life on Earth. They provide us with food, fuel, fibre, industrial feedstocks, and medicines.  They render our atmosphere breathable.  They buffer us against extremes of weather and provide food and shelter for much of the life on our planet. However, we take plants and the benefits they confer for granted.  Given their importance, we should pay plants greater attention and give higher priority to improving our understanding of them.

“Everyone knows that we need doctors, and the idea that our best and brightest should go into medicine is embedded in our culture. However, even more important than medical care is the ability to survive from day to day; this requires food, shelter, clothes, and energy, all of which depend on plants.

“Plant scientists are tackling many of the most important challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, including climate change, food security, and fossil fuel replacement.  Making the best possible progress will require exceptional people. We need to radically change our culture so that ‘plant scientist’ (or, if we can rehabilitate the term, ‘botanist’) can join ‘doctor’, ‘vet’ and ‘lawyer’ in the list of top professions to which our most capable young people aspire.”

The authors, who include Professor Giles Oldroyd of the John Innes Centre and Professor Jonathan Jones of The Sainsbury Laboratory, highlight a number of key issues facing the plant scientists of the future:

  • Food production needs to double from existing levels to feed a world population set to reach 9 billion by 2050. Significant investment in agricultural science and innovation is necessary to ensure maximum productivity on existing arable land and reduce the impact of food production on the planet’s remaining wilderness areas
  • Without significant improvements in yields of the basic crop plants – wheat, maize, rice – we will experience a squeeze on agricultural land. It is therefore essential to address the yield gap, otherwise we may be forced to choose between the production of staple food crops and luxury crops such as tea, coffee, cocoa, cotton, fruits and vegetables
  • We need to explore how plants can contribute to solving the energy crisis and find a balance between the use of plants for food and plants for fuel. Plants might also be used to ameliorate global warming but carbon markets do not currently provide sufficient incentive for farmers to grow crops simply to take carbon dioxide out of the air

Professor Claire Grierson, an expert in plant growth and development at the University of Bristol and lead author of the letter said: “Getting such a diverse group of people together to draw up this list of questions was a very exciting and stimulating process.  It was thrilling to realise that there is a great deal of agreement and a surprisingly strong consensus among plant scientists from all walks of the discipline on which issues and combinations of challenges are the most important to address.

“One of our key recommendations is that plant scientists from different disciplines (for example, crop science and ecology) should meet much more often to facilitate the interactions and collaborations that are needed to extract the most important knowledge about plants and apply it to the significant challenges facing humanity.”

The letter is published in New Phytologist.

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