Money to burn?

By Stephanie Pain in St Louis TO LOSE one species may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose any more of the remaining 3214 rare and endangered plant species in the US could mean throwing away a fortune. In the first study to put a price on this vanishing vegetation, Brien Meilleur of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis and Oliver Phillips of the University of Leeds estimate that rare plants in the US could be worth billions of dollars a year. “The public tends to think we are losing oddities that might be interesting but don’t have much impact on society,” says Phillips. “These figures contradict that.” Phillips and Meilleur compiled a comprehensive database of plants used for foods, animal fodder, timber, medicine and other products. They then looked at which of the US rarities belonged to the same genus as one of these useful plants—a good indicator of their economic potential. Close relatives of medicinal plants, for example, are likely to produce similar, perhaps more potent, versions of the active ingredient. And wild relatives of crop plants are a repository of genes that could be used to improve today’s varieties. The survey revealed that 80 per cent of America’s threatened plants belong to a genus that includes at least one, and often many, useful species (Economic Botany, vol 52, p 57). “Biotechnology makes it easier to move genes around, so wild relatives could make more of a contribution to the cultivated ones in future,” says Phillips. Some of the wild species in the US have already shown their potential. American grapevines saved Europe’s wine industry from the ravages of the root-sucking phylloxera louse late last century. The hybrid sunflower grown throughout the US is a product of breeding with wild Helianthus species, which have given the crop its improved yields and resistance to fungi. Yet 12 wild varieties of Helianthus are in trouble in the southern US. While putting a precise value on the economic potential of endangered plants is almost impossible, Phillips and Meilleur made their estimate from the sales of crops with rare wild relatives—assuming that the rarities could be just as valuable. This gave them a figure of $9 billion a year for the US market alone. “But putting a dollar figure on plants is less important than demonstrating how many of them have the potential to be important economically,” says Meilleur. “Species should not be allowed to go extinct anyway,
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