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Botanic Gardens Linking Plants with Improvements to Nutrition
It is obvious that human well-being depends upon a food supply that relies upon plant products. Plant diversity also supports the functioning of ecosystems that support food production, and provides genetic resources that can contribute crop qualities such as disease resistance, productivity or adaptation to local conditions. Botanic gardens have several skills and activities that are particularly important to this issue:
Collection and Conservation of Plant Diversity
Botanic gardens have many crop species and wild crop relatives kept within seed bank and living stocks. In a world of declining species richness these stores are an essential and accessible tool for conserving and recording our biodiversity. These collections are an essential foundation for efforts to alter or improve the properties of plants that we use for food (such as improving nutritional value, or drought-hardiness). The genetic diversity within these stores are also essential for protecting our food production, as crop relatives and variants can be the key to breeding disease resistant crop plants.
Cultivation of Food Plants
The long history of horticultural expertise within botanic gardens mean that they are well placed to bring wild food plants into cultivation. This has several purposes - as well as conserving the plants within the garden's collection, the plants can then be more amenable to research and investigation of their properties, and to crop breeding. Discovering the most practicable means of cultivating a food plant can also help local people to cultivate their food without the difficulty of searching for it in the wild.
Research and Investigation into Food Plants
Research can help to identify and investigate useful food plant and crops, and important plant traits (for example, the toxicity or nutritional value of a plant species). Using the information collected, useful traits can be bred into crop plants. For example, botanic gardens can help to breed longer-lasting fruit plants, so local farmers have time to transport their fruit to market. Alternatively, drought resistant species could be bred, which is particularly important given the predicted effects of climate change.
For example: Australian Bush Tucker: New Crops, New Industry
Education and Communication
Education and communication are essential for ensuring the benefits of botanic garden expertise, collections and research can be shared with the people that it will benefit: for example, to teach people how to cultivate their food plants. Educational tools can also be used to explain the nutritional value of eating a diversity of vegetables, which is important in cultures where traditional indigenous vegetables may be falling out of fashion, and also in developed countries, where many eat a diet over-processed and too calorific.
Promoting Nutritional Self-Sufficiency in Cuba
The Cuban botanic garden is a model of efficiency, and is especially active in the area of fruit and vegetable production: it grows all the vegetables it uses, and re-uses waste, and promotes Cubans growing an increased diversity and quantity of vegetables. The "Waste Not Want Not" ethos is strong.
The Introduction Nursery for Food, Crop and Medicinal Plants at the Komarov Botanical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences: Its Role in the Conservation of Biodiversity
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So Shall We Reap (2004)
Subtitle: How Everyone Who Is Liable to Be Born in the Next Ten Thousand Years Could Eat Very Well Indeed; and Why, in Practice, Our Immediate Descendants Are Likely to Be in Serious Trouble. Colin Tudge highlights how intensive agriculture is placing our future in peril.
Darwin's Harvest: Origins, Evolution, and Conservation of Crop Plants (Motley et al, 2006)
This book describes how a variety of temperate and tropical crop plants were domesticated, using a broad selection of research studies that use both traditional and contemporary tools. Edited by Timothy J. Motley, Nyree Zerega & Hugh Cross, and published February 2006.