Biodiversity and Underexploited Species

Plant and animal genetic material is in great need of preservation as population pressure and poor resource managent take their toll on the environment. Many of us have heard the statistics presented by Noel Vietmeyer of the NRC; "of the 20,000 species of grasses we are using only seven species intensively as basic food crops, and only six of the 18,000 legumes have been the focus of most of our pulse research". Banana, mango, papaya and pineapple are four tropical fruits out of over 3,000 that have been given much attention globally. Literally thousands of plants have medicinal properties but few have been exploited.

Many people are working to preserve underexploited plants. Scientists and others have begun to recognize the value of other land races or varieties in their breeding programs, they have also begun to relize the potential importance that other species could play to increase the diversity of our food production systems. Organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Nature Conservancy, and ther among others, have made real strides in preserving potentially valuable species from extinction.

Preservation is necessary, but not enough. Research is urgently needed on the potential for cultivating these plants so that we know how these plants can be incorporated into the existing cropping systems. Research is also needed on the possible applications of these plants. Indigenous knowledge of uses and management of lesser known crops is therefore also of great importance. Unfortunately, this information is being lost as indigenous people are being forced to abandon their land and livelihood. The forces of population growth and poor resource management are therefore doubly damaging, since they destroy the genetic as well as information resources of underexploited plants. The concept of "cultural" preservation promoted by Dr. Gary Nabhan and others is an appropriate way to save and utilize underexploited plants.

We also need to create and expand networks to improve the dissemination of information which promotes the purpose of the research as well as information which describes the application of the research. Some of the organiztions involved in these endeavors are described on this page.