Preserving genetic diversity in the face of climate change

Ex-Situ Plant Conservation

The case for ex-situ conservation and free sharing of plant genetics.

When did nature become static?

Over the last several decades, the plant conservation pendulum has swung strongly in favor of in-situ conservation as the gold standard, not just for preserving ecological habitats, but also for preserving endangered, threatened, and rare plants. In our humble opinion, this is neither the most effective nor most logical choice for rare plant preservation.

In-situ plant conservation only makes sense when climates are static, and as we all know, our current climate is anything but static. So, if the climate isn’t static, why do plant conservationists expect plant populations to remain static?

Ecological purists extol certain geologic points in time as special and worthy of preservation, since to them, these periods represent a magical point before European settlers to the US began ruining nature. Like climate, plant populations have never been or will never be static. Whether changes are caused by humans, glaciers, volcanos, or meteorites, the climate will always change…sometimes very slowly, and at other times, quite abruptly.

The exclusive use of native plants has become the mantra of the ecological purists, but the entire concept of native plants starts with a flawed premise. Native is not a place in location; it is only a place in time. America has been glaciated 17 times. Plants have been moved around throughout the continent, many left far from where their genetics originated. 

Native landscape

The same misapplied concept of what’s native also applies to humans. What we call Native Americans are not at all native. All Homo sapiens originated in Africa. Some lines migrated to North America across the Pacific Ocean, while others followed by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It’s fascinating that those who arrived first from the west are considered “native”, while those that came later from the East are considered non-native. It’s folks who lack the ability to look at the big picture that keep promoting ethnic origin of both plants and humans as a means of discrimination by claiming superiority of one group over the other.

The other fallacy of European interlopers being the ones who changed natural American landscapes has sparked the current movement to re-create “natural prairie habitats”. Most North American prairies were actually created by humans that crossed the Bearing land bridge from the west. From between 20,000 and 50,000 years, these immigrants have been manipulating the American landscapes, by creating open spaces, which were better for luring animals to slaughter. When the Eastern interlopers arrived, their arrogance led them to believe they were looking at a natural landscape, instead of one that had been highly manipulated by intelligent humans for the prior tens of thousands of years.

Plant adaptation

Most plants are able to adapt and many have migrated long distances as climate change occurred through Earth’s past. Other plants with less developed travel skills and adaptability have gone extinct. Yet others, hybridize with other species as their habitats shift due to climate changes, to create yet more new species.

As humans, our most important plant conservation efforts should focus on plants which have niche growth requirements, and are consequently endangered, threatened, or rare, due to this poor genetic adaptability. Conservation is critical in case these plants may offer potential benefits to the human race, be that medicinal, culinary, aesthetic, or economic. We feel it is incumbent on humans to facilitate the movement of these plants from their current habitats via propagation to as many more suitable habitats as possible. Preserving rare plants only in the location they currently exist is the ultimate folly, since once the humanity is gone, does it really matter which plants we have conserved, and where they are located?

The problem with in-situ conservation mindset

In-situ conservationists often repeat the mantras that rare plants will not grow outside their “native” habitat, or that we must keep populational genetics pure. Seriously? First, we need to understand that most plants do not occur in the wild where they grow their best. In most cases, rare plants occur where they will persist without assistance and without competition in a particular set of climatic constraints. This is a secret that horticulturists have known for hundreds of thousands of years.

In-situ conservationists’ obsessions over keeping populational genetics pure is also fascinatingly bizarre. Sure, doing so helps you get grant money for study, but does it really help preserve the plant? We contend not. A lack of gene exchange, often caused by the construction of highways, farms, and towns, has been a significant contributor to the genetic bottlenecking that is prevalent in many rare, endangered, and threatened plant species. In the grand scheme of plant preservation, only good can come by the genetic strengthening by mixing populations.

Imagine if we applied these same commonly promoted genetic isolation principles to…say, Homo sapiens. That would, of course, ban genetic mixing of races under the name of the ethnic purity ideal. It seems that short-sighted dictators worldwide have promoted those exact same concepts of maintaining ethnic purity and superiority for Millenia. Their reasoning for doing so mimics what we hear from botanical genetic purists today. It didn’t make any sense then and it certainly doesn’t make any sense now. 

We advocate for a far greater emphasis on ex-situ plant conservation of endangered, threatened, and rare plants. We are not saying that in-situ conservation should be abandoned, only that in the face of climate change, the best chance to actually save and multiply endangered and threatened plant species is not by leaving then alone in areas where they evolved some 10,000 to 100,000 years earlier, and hoping for the best.  We feel that the best solution is via ex-situ conservation, propagation, and unrestricted sharing.

Hymenocallis henryae var. glauca
Hymenocallis henryae var. glauca

Back to the Future

Ex-situ conservation is in need of a reboot by returning to a much older and wiser way of thinking. A damning report on the inadequacies of in-situ plant conservation was compiled by the National Science Foundation in 2019. A team of 35 researchers over a 10 year period found a whopping 36.5% of the 434,934 global land plant species are categorized as very rare, making them most at risk for extinction due to the changing climate. (6)

A 2011 study by Duke University estimated that another 15% of the world’s plant species have yet to be discovered. That would bring the total estimated plant species on earth to 500,174. At an endangered rate of 36.5%, that gives us 182,563 plants that are in danger of extinction.

In 2005, a two-year BGCI study revealed that 9,000 endangered plant species were currently being grown in botanic gardens worldwide. (3) It is imperative that we all work together to immediately get the remaining 175,000 species into ex-situ conservation gardens where they will be propagated and shared widely.

Ex-situ approach

We have a problem with the current approach to ex-situ conservation. Ex-situ conservation has long been a mission of many botanic gardens. In most cases, early ex-situ conservation efforts were simply done to be able to boast about the exclusivity of one’s collection.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and there are now a number of botanic gardens worldwide who have an ex-situ conservation focus on endangered, threatened, and rare plants. Sadly, however, most of these gardens treat these plants as museum pieces until they perish, or in other cases, propagate and introduce these same poorly adapted plants back into the same sites from which they previously vanished. Shockingly, there are very few botanic gardens worldwide, whose purpose is to conserve via propagating and sharing outside of their own small network.

Bureaucratic Roadblocks

Humankind has had a long history of sharing of plant genetic resources, known as the common heritage of humankind. Until the early 1990s, plant genetics were always considered to be freely available for the benefit of present and future generations. (2) Sadly, as part of the Rio Earth Summit, several countries abandoned the “common heritage” principle and instead substituted one of national ownership of plant genetics. (2)  Greed, shortsightedness, and an overabundance of lawyers took over the previous greater good philosophy that had allow human kind to thrive and expand for hundreds of thousands of years.

Ex-situ conservationists are now faced an array of rules and treaties, which were supposedly designed to allow for free access plant exchange, but instead have done the opposite, by ensuring that plant genetic access has virtually ceased…unless one has access to unlimited funds and good lawyers.
The Convention on Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1975, The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in 1992, and the Nagoya Protocols of 2014 are each bureaucratic fiascos, which have severely limited the free flow of plant germplasm. Instead of helping to preserve plants, these treaties are now a cause of plant extinctions.

The original intent of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) was to a: promote a general obligation for all nations to conserve biological diversity; b: to ensure the freedom of access to wild genetic resources; and c: to share the cost of conservation by all nations. 

The original intent of the CBD was hijacked by nationalist bureaucrats who drafted the agreement because they were upset when other countries, businesses, etc. used their native plants in economic ways, including foods and medicines. Instead of learning to use their own plants, these bureaucrats instead opted for a classic six year-old reactionary tantrum. Instead of trying to increase their use of their own native plants, these insulted countries banded together to restrict access to their toys, which included all plants native to their country.

The basic premise of the CBD is based on prior mutual consent and benefit sharing. While these concepts sound simple and easily workable, they are anything but, when you involve a governmental bureaucracy, whose sole job is to create rules without any motivation of actual accomplishment with regard to plant conservation.

Over the years, CBD has become mired deeper and deeper in legal entanglements, to the point that genetic exchange with most countries has become virtually impossible, even for plant researchers. Botanical gardens have difficulty acquiring plants, and when they do, it’s usually under a restrictive agreement that doesn’t allow them to propagate and share…a truly effective way to make sure plants go extinct.

The Nagoya protocols are the CBD on steroids.  Nagoya dug its heals in deeper to the concept of national plant genetic ownership, equating plants to minerals and rare animals. Nagoya also added legal punishments to an already disastrous treaty.  In effect, Nagoya re-framed an entire previously celebrated human history of plant exploration for the greater good, by re-labeling those efforts and those involved as botanical thieves or bio-pirates.

The lunacy of equating plants with rare animals or mineral resources should be obvious to anyone who has ever planted a seed or taken a cutting, yet it seems lost on a generation of greed-blinded and control-hungry bureaucrats. Indeed, plants can be grown from seed, cuttings, or divisions with virtually no negative impact on natural populations.

All of these aforementioned treaties, while originally well intentioned, have done little to preserve rare and endangered plant species. On the other hand, they have certainly done tremendous damage to any ability to acquire, study, propagate, and share these plants. Even CITES plants which are clonal, or are obviously vegetatively propagated are often subject to insurmountable hoops to commercial and research exchange.

Thankfully, a group of top scientists penned a 2018 article in Science, “When the Cure Kills – CBD”, pointing out many of the problems that we have outlined here. Many of the co-signatories listed in the bibliography were instrumental in writing the CBD.  At least, this mea culpa is better late than never. (9)

Yes, plants are actually going extinct due to these treaties. In a recent example from the early 2000s , the late plantsman, Alan Galloway discovered a new Amorphophallus species from a single small mountain in Thailand. This is one of 17 species that Galloway, a hobbyist, discovered and published. Because he did not have CBD permission to collect (it’s impossible to get permission to collect a species that you don’t know exists), the new species had to be published without exact collection locations. Consequently, a few years later, he returned to the original site to find the entire population destroyed by mining of the mountain for gravel.

Critical thinking theory – a lost skill

It is shocking how many botanic gardens and academics have mindlessly jumped on the CBD/Nagoya bandwagon as it plunges off the botanical cliff and plant extinction continues to soar. Botanic Garden staffs worldwide are terrified of losing their jobs if the bureaucratic authorities find that they have dared to share plant genetics without getting lawyers involved and signed agreements properly executed. Staff have often been instructed to “tow the party line” and not speak out for fear of upsetting those in charge.

The idea of a botanic garden sharing rare plants for commercial purposes is almost non-existent, unless it’s one of a tiny handful of enlightened gardens who cling to the outdated belief that humankind is best served by the free sharing of the world’s plant germplasm, and not restricting “plant ownership” to countries, whose anthropogenic borders just happen to coincide with current populational distributions. The late JC Raulston of NC State University was one of the best know directors to challenge the status quo. JC was un-rivaled in his work to propagate and share plants from around the world.

Non-management staff at several venerable botanic garden worldwide are incredibly frustrated that care of significant ex-situ plant collections of CITIES material is routinely allowed to die due to staffing problems, incompetent management, or regulations restricting the use of pesticides. Killing rare plants is fine, but sharing them without lawyers approval is not. It truly sounds like the patients are running the asylum.

To make the insanity worse, these same restrictive rules are now being used for germplasm even within the county of origin. Sharing rare plant material for any purposes has become sadly burdensome due to the maze of ludicrous regulations, set up to ensure plants remain exclusive to a club who arrogantly thinks someone died and left them to oversee the worlds plant genetics. 

Troublesome rhetoric

In a January 2010 article in Nature Magazine, the authors demonstrated this arrogance on full display, wringing their hands that people had dared to propagate rare and endangered plants species and offered them for sale. They wrote “Fewer than ten cabbage-on-a-stick plants (Brighamia insignis) are all that remain of the wild population in Hawaii. Yet for US$29.99, anyone could buy the succulent at an online auction. Thanks to loosely regulated Internet commerce and efficient shipping, people are increasingly obtaining endangered or threatened plants, legally and illegally, and moving them outside their native ranges.” 

“Last year, we searched through thousands of websites containing the phrases ‘seeds for sale’ or ‘plants for sale’ to determine how many of the 753 plants listed as threatened and endangered under the US Endangered Species Act can be purchased online. We found that nearly 10% are being sold or at least advertised online and are available for in-state purchase. Most of these sales are illegal: of the more than 50 sellers we found offering to ship plants between states, just four had the appropriate interstate commerce permit issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which costs $100, involves minimal paperwork and can be obtained in three months. About half the endangered plants available to buyers in the United States are sold in states outside their native range. Some are even sold overseas.”

We say hooray those who propagate and make available rare and endangered plants! It’s about time that there was s a public revolt to the limitations put on the propagation of rare plants by those who seek arbitrary control the worlds germplasm. Listen to the arrogance in the article that someone in a foreign county might actually be able to grow an Endangered plant from the USA.  Oh, my goodness, the world’s plant genetics will surely come to an end.

The article in Nature, continued with an equally bizarre statement like “Moreover, the trade in endangered plants can severely affect wild populations by introducing plant pathogens or increasing wild-plant harvesting.”  Seriously?  This is the type of manufactured excuses that are tossed out for lack of a cogent argument. They, then went on to say:

“The agency could also restrict the ability of consumers to buy hybrids bred from endangered species. Currently, these are not formally regulated — allowing breeders to cultivate the unique characteristics of rare plants while evading endangered-species laws. Yet hybrids can have serious implications — good and bad — for the management of wild populations. 

By Daderot. - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Brighamia insignis. Image credit: Daderot. – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0

Take the Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis). The FWS proposed delisting this endangered species in August 2010 in part because nursery-propagated plants have helped to re-establish 20 colonies in the species’ historical range. The agency also suspects that the commercial availability of plants reduces the poaching threat to wild populations. Yet, in 2003, a commercial grower created a morphologically similar hybrid (E. tennesseensis × Echinacea purpurea) — this could further improve the survival of the wild plants by reducing poaching, or it could pose a significant risk if it infiltrates the historical range of the Tennessee coneflower.“

Here’s a hint…there is no such hybrid. Commercial growers realized that by calling the commercial strain of Echinacea tennesseensis a hybrid, they could skirt the ridiculous regulations and the need for Federal permits. By the way, anyone could plant pure Echinacea purpurea in the middle of a population of Echinacea tennesseensis and you’d soon have a mass of hybrids. Regulating Echinacea tennesseensis would have no effect. Trying to create rules for every fear-based scenario accomplishes nothing except growing the size of the unfunctional bureaucracy, while more and more rare plants go extinct.

One last passage from the Nature article, “Although the redistribution of plant species around the world is nothing new, the ease with which people can now obtain and transfer specimens is unprecedented. This, combined with a growing interest in assisted colonization, makes it more important than ever for federal and local governments to wrest control of illegal Internet trade, develop a policy for hybrids and ensure that genetic diversity is considered when propagating plants.” 

How do we fix the mess

First, ex-situ conservation must be embraced, but not as the endpoint. We do not need more museum-like plant collections that are only available to the academically connected few. The ex-situ conservation process must involve free genetic sharing, study, propagation, and subsequent distribution as widespread as is possible.

For ex-situ conservation to be successful, three things must happen:

– A realization by in-situ conservationists that ex-situ conservation is far more successful in the face of climate change.
– A reform or elimination of all treaties that restrict the free flow of plant germplasm.
– A realization by researchers that propagation and commercialization of endangered, threatened, and rare plants is a valuable tool to make the plants more widely available for growth, study, and plant breeding, as well as removing collecting pressures from wild populations.
– All rare plants must be shared widely.

There are so many opportunities for economic benefit from the propagation and distribution of rare and endangered plants.  While we realize that all plants don’t have the same equal economic value, that doesn’t diminish the importance of ex-situ conservation and sharing.

The best modern-day example of functional ex-situ plant conservation, propagation, and distribution is undoubtedly the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis). With less than 100 plants in situ, this critically endangered plant was propagated and distributed worldwide. Not only is the public awareness of the Wollemi pine incredibly high, but conservationists were also able to grow, propagate, and sell the plants with monies generated going to assist with conservation efforts. Had this effort not been undertaken, who knows what would have happened if the small populations had been subjected to the whims of unscrupulous collectors.

Yavia cryptocarpa, an extremely rare Argentine native barrel cactus has a similar story. After its discovery in 2001, The British Cactus and Succulent Society worked with Argentine authorities to collect seed and distribute them widely to commercial cactus propagators.  Plants were commercially available to collectors by 2003, removing the pressures of illegal collection. (1)

We advocate every country to be pushed to create programs where government or commercial ventures would propagate their own native flora, and/or make it commercially available to both researchers and other commercial operations worldwide. This could range from small mom and pop nurseries to a large multi-national firm. We’d like to see every country encouraging knowledgeable plant explorers to visit and join the search for new and rare plants, but without any restrictions other than to not decimate natural populations.

In human history, the most prolific new plant discoveries, and subsequent ex-situ conservation, occurred because there was an economic benefit to doing so. Governments sponsored plant exploration because they hoped to reap economic returns. 

We find it repugnant that bureaucrats and quite a few academics use the rarity of a plant as a reason to keep it out of commerce, which in their view, taints its scientific value. Rarity should be more of a reason to propagate and share.  Not only does commercialization create more plants, but it reduces pressure where wild collection is a problem with a few rare species. The Cactus and Succulent Society America (CSSA) has been a shining example of success in this area. Also, the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) maintains the world’s finest seed exchange that has been untainted by those who wish to shut down sharing of rare plant genetics.

An ex-situ conservation program centered on free sharing of plant germplasm is a win-win for everyone, but especially for plant conservation. In such a model, human society benefits, both from a knowledge and economic perspective. By limiting the distribution of plants as we currently do, no one wins except for bureaucrats and their lawyers.  Is this really what we want, or do we want to preserve plants.

It takes a true visionary leader to see the bigger picture of ex-situ conservation as a starting point for sharing, studying, and disseminating. Sadly, those leaders are few and far between, but we hope you’ll join us on this critical march to a better place for humankind.

– Tony Avent


1-Thornton, William C. – Should endangered plants be propagated commercially? – Cactus and Succulent Society of America, 2013, Volume 85, number 4
2-Le Buanec, Bernard – Plant genetic resources and freedom to operate – Euphytica 2005: 146-1-8
4-Tom Mitchell, personal communication, 2011
5-RBG Kew – 2016 – State of the World’s Plants.
6-Enquist, etal, 2019 – The commonness of rarity: Global and future distribution of rarity across land plants
7-Lucas N. Joppa, David L. Roberts, Norman Myers, Stuart L. Pimm. Biodiversity hotspots house most undiscovered plant species. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109389108
8- Shirey, Patrick & Lamberti, Gary, Nature, January 27, 2011, Volume 469
9- Prathapan, Divakaran, 2018 – When the cure kills—CBD, Science 360 (6396), 1405-1406.

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