Why study plants?

A few years ago, I put together a talk to give to a science club here at OWU offering my answer to the question, “Why study plants?” I organized my ideas around the concepts of plants being beautiful, interesting, important, and useful. I still think these are useful categories to address the original question. But over the last several years, I have become increasingly convinced that the latter two reasons have grown in stature in my thinking at least, if not in actual stature with respect to the problems facing humanity.

My conviction on this point has crystallized recently as I read two separate, totally unrelated articles. I’ll discuss one of them today, and the other some other day.

In his annual letter on the activities of his foundation, Bill Gates articulates the need for more investment in crop research:

Over time, governments in both developed and developing countries focused less on agriculture. Agricultural aid fell from 17 percent of all aid from rich countries in 1987 to just 4 percent in 2006. In the past 10 years, the demand for food has gone up because of population growth and economic development—as people get richer, they tend to eat more meat, which indirectly raises demand for grain. Supply growth has not kept up, leading to higher prices.

He goes on to argue, among other things, that we place ourselves at risk by ignoring the need for agricultural improvement. Plants are sitting ducks for pathogens, and Gates points out the nasty wheat rust known as Ug99 as an example of the kind of threat posed to crops grown in monoculture. With this fungal pathogen, it is not a matter of if it will affect North American wheat production, just when.

In a place like the U.S., we’ve enjoyed the luxury of taking food for granted for so long, we can hardly imagine the impact that a crop failure would have on our economy. We assume that the yearly corn harvest, the crop that undergirds most of our food economy, will maintain low prices at the grocery — Gates points out that a mere 15% of our consumer spending goes toward food — and allow us to spend our paychecks on more scintillating purchases like iPads XBoxes (sorry Mr. Gates). Without sustained efforts to outrun pests and pathogens that attack crop plants, we are almost guaranteeing a major crop failure some day.

But there is another wrinkle to funding as it currently stands, and that is that by leaving half ($1.2 of $3.0 bil) of agricultural spending on the most important crops up to the private sector, we almost guarantee that crop improvements will be directed at wealthy, developed nations and pass over the poor, developing nations. Individuals and families will remain in poverty, scraping out subsistence yields with no surplus for the market, and no opportunity to join the global economy, largely because they lack the stability of predictable crop yields that only comes from research investment. In other words, this discussion quickly incorporates issues of social justice and the fight to end extreme poverty.

So this is one prong of an argument to invest in plant science research, either financially (if you are a billionaire) or with your time and talent. If you are interested in a career in research and have a desire to do good in the world, becoming a plant scientist is a path worth exploring. But this is not the only reason, there are several other great reasons to explore this field that I’ll talk about some other day.

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