A teenager asked me this question one day at an environmental education fair. I explained how plants are important because they are our source of food, medicine and clothing and picked examples that might strike a chord with her. I don’t think it worked. All I received in return was a blank stare and a polite nod.
This experience made me realize that I need to prepare a better answer, especially for this age group. It left me feeling compelled to record every encounter with a plant and plant by-product for the rest of my life. Fortunately, I found a wonderful resource that will help me articulate the value of plants to both young audiences and adult audiences alike.
Why People Need Plants by Carlton Wood and Nicolette Habgood (2010) is a thorough reference that is sure to resonate with any audience. Here is what I like about this book:
- It is written for a general audience and not loaded with statistics and scientific terminology.
- Instead of saying, “We need plants for food”, Wood & Habgood (2010) provide a historical backdrop beginning with how our dependence upon agriculture began 11,000 years ago. They combine data from research studies with historical accounts to describe the botanical sources of food crops, nutrients and popular drinks such as tea, coffee, cocoa and cola. In their discussion about plants and health, they provide a great visual of “The Eatwell Plate”, the UK’s version of the USDA Food Pyramid that, quite frankly, does a better job at showing how two-thirds of the human diet should come from plants. They also make the excellent point that the dairy products we so enjoy are derived from animals dependent upon plants, reinforcing the role plants play at all levels of the food chain.
- Instead of saying, “We need plants for wood to build homes”, the authors explain the properties plants possess that make them valuable sources of wood and many other products. For example, they explain how the cellular structure of wood makes it a good insulator, why cork’s properties makes it a good source for flooring and engine gaskets and not just plugs for wine bottles. Wood and Habgood (2010) describe the four sources of fiber found in plants and how fiber has been used to make everything from rope for sailing ships to fishing line to flexible paper for money and tea bags. They even explain how plants are used by Mercedes Benz to make automobile parts.
- Instead of saying, “We need to save plants just in case they have medicinal value,” Wood & Habgood (2010) confirm the world’s reliance on plants for medicine by beginning their chapter about medicinal plants with a statistic from the World Health Organization indicating that “80% of the world’s population still rely on plants for their primary source of medicines” (Wood & Habgood, 2010). They go on to discuss the history of medicinal plants, the globalization of Chinese medicine, the discovery of aspirin, the discovery of the cancer drug taxol, and take a look at ethnopharmacology — the study of medicinal plants and the ethnic groups who use them — and the implementation of revenue-sharing agreements between drug companies and the communities where source plants are found.
- Instead of saying, “We need plants for fuel,” Wood and Habgood (2010) describe the types of fuel that can be derived from plants. They explain why grass is a good source for biofuel and explain the differences between biodiesel and bioethanol using easy-to-follow graphics showing how both fuels are produced and used.
- Wood and Habgood (2010) discuss how plants help forensic botanists solve crimes. Given the apparent popularity of crime shows, the inclusion of this information gives plants a modern edgy look even though the field of forensic botany has existed for 76 years. Pollen profiles, spore profiles and the growth habits of plants can provide valuable information when solving crimes. Broken branches and their “corrective growth” (Wood and Habgood, 2010) can reveal the route taken by criminals, pollen and spores can provide unique snapshots of an area, and plant DNA can be traced to crime scenes.
- Wood and Habgood (2010) look at the big picture. Interesting and informative chapters about micropropagation, genetically modified plants, methods of natural plant protection, human impacts on the planet, plant conservation, and what the future of plants looks like given the need to feed a growing human population, provide a firm foundation from which to explore each of these topics in greater detail.
Citing stories taken from current news headlines, Why People Need Plants is an invaluable resource providing a succinct and comprehensive look at the relationship humans have with plants.
Buy Why People Need Plants online from your local independent bookstore.
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Published at ArtPlantae Today, July 22, 2011.