Plants are political hot potatoes

Wednesday 25 February 2009

A group of leading UK scientists and social scientists led by the ESRC Genomics Forum, based at the University of Edinburgh, calls for joined-up thinking on the emerging politics of plants.

Green is the new gold. The world is waking up to the potential of plants - from food to fuel, industrial feedstocks to carbon sinks, there is growing talk of plants replacing oil as the cornerstone of the global economy. 

But such fame comes at a price. 

Recent 'food versus biofuel' debates are just one example of a new 'politics of plants' that needs urgent attention at both national and international levels.

Writing in the first issue of the new journal Food Security, lead author Dr Emma Frow, research fellow at the ESRC Genomics Forum, and her co-authors suggest that it is not just a question of 'food versus fuel'. Food and energy security are major concerns, but so are safeguarding human health, tackling climate change, protecting landscapes and global biodiversity, supporting rural communities, and providing raw materials for industry. All of these issues are connected to our use and management of plants.

Some of the world's major economic, political, environmental and scientific institutions will have to be realigned if society is to tackle these pressing problems. 

"Our position paper argues that plants could be a perfect focal point for joined-up government thinking on food security, health, industry and climate change," comments Dr Frow.

"Scientific advances are creating opportunities for all sorts of new and clever uses for plants - as biofuels, plastics, 'bio-factories' for chemical or drug production, and so on. In principle, many of these applications could be both environmentally sustainable and economically viable: a win-win situation." 

But Dr Frow sounds a note of caution: despite the growing interest in using plants for new purposes, the amount of land available for plants to grow is finite. "This is where conflicts among competing priorities begin to emerge," she says.

The challenge is to make sure that positive strides in some areas do not have long-term negative consequences for other parts of the system. The sharp rise in cereal prices in 2007-2008 - fuelled in part by crop failures, increased biofuel production and market speculation - is an obvious example of how plants are linked to global food, energy and climate systems. The politics of plants is likely to get increasingly complicated in the coming decades. 

"Lack of coordination is fuelling the emerging politics of plants, and new efforts are essential to develop more integrated and sustainable solutions," stresses Prof David Ingram, co-author of the paper and former Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Describing some of the technological developments on the horizon, co-author Prof Wayne Powell, Director of the Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences in Aberystwyth, is optimistic: 

"We will almost certainly see great improvements in our ability to derive energy and other useful materials from plants," he says.

Prof Powell adds: "The billion-dollar research question is whether there is enough biomass to support all of our environmental, social and economic objectives. We are learning how to optimise the potential of plants, but the translation of research findings into application is still rate-limiting. Land and water availability are also key limiting factors."

How to balance these many roles of plants will become an increasingly complicated challenge in coming decades, one that we should openly acknowledge and debate. Interdisciplinary research and joined-up government thinking will be necessary to ensure that we can balance social, environmental and economic objectives in a rapidly changing world.

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Notes for editors

  1. Article citation:
    Frow, EK, Ingram, D, Powell, W, Steer, D, Vogel, J and Yearley, S (2009) The politics of plants. Food Security 1(1):17-23. DOI: 10.1007/s12571-008-0007-6
    The authors are based at the following institutions:
    • ESRC Genomics Forum (University of Edinburgh);
    • Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University);
    • Joint Nature Conservation Committee (the statutory adviser to Government on UK and international nature conservation);
    • Natural History Museum (London).   
  2. The article is an output from an interdisciplinary project on plant genomics based at the ESRC Genomics Forum
  3. Established in August 2004, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is a novel initiative in the field of social science research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
  4. As part of the ESRC Genomics Network (EGN), the Forum acts to:
    • integrate the diverse strands of social science research within and beyond the EGN;
    • develop links between social scientists and scientists working across the entire range of genomic science and technology;
    • connect research in this area to policy makers, business, the media and civil society in the UK and abroad.   
  5. Food Security is a new journal published by Springer. It is the initiative of a distinguished international group of scientists, sociologists and economists who hold a deep concern for the challenge of global food security, together with a vision of the power of shared knowledge as a means of meeting that challenge.
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million.  At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.  
  7. The ESRC website offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Intute and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities.