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ARS Home » Northeast Area » Beltsville, Maryland (BARC) » Beltsville Agricultural Research Center » Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #311289

Research Project: Defining Agroecological Principles and Developing Sustainable Practices in Mid-Atlantic Cropping Systems

Location: Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory

Title: Expanding the role of botanical gardens in the future of food

item Miller, Allison - St Louis University
item Novy, Ari - Smithsonian Institute
item Glover, Jerry - Us Agency For International Development (USAID)
item Maul, Jude
item Raven, Peter - Missouri Botanical Garden
item Jackson, Peter - Missouri Botanical Garden

Submitted to: Nature Plants
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 5/8/2015
Publication Date: 6/1/2015
Citation: Miller, A., Novy, A., Glover, J., Maul, J.E., Raven, P., Jackson, P.W. 2015. Expanding the role of botanical gardens in the future of food. Nature Plants. 1:1-4.

Interpretive Summary: Agricultural lands represent the planet’s largest and most rapidly expanding ecosystem, and in most cases have, undergone environmental degradation. In addition, agricultural expansion has been the single greatest driver of biodiversity loss on the planet. Yet, humans need to cultivate a robust and diverse agricultural system to provide healthy, productive and secure lives for all inhabitants of the planet. The challenge of developing sustainable agricultural systems is a wicked problem as it is inherently interconnected to a myriad of complex social, environmental and economic issues. As such, it requires concerted societal efforts to move forward responsibly. Unfortunately, in an urbanizing society, familiarity and knowledge of our vast agricultural system is lacking. In order for society to effectively engage in responsible agricultural decision making, agriculture must be presented in an understandable fashion in the urban locations where the majority of societal actors are located. There is already a vast system of institutions dedicated to plant knowledge, research and public education that could carry out such a critical mission: botanical gardens. We present here an argument for expanding and underscoring the use of botanical gardens to educate the public about the critical role agriculture plays in our day to day life. The concepts presented here will be of use to to botanic garden managers and agricultural researchers alike and may aide in finding the common ground among these two areas of plant science.

Technical Abstract: Collectively, the world’s more than 3,000 botanical gardens cultivate approximately one-third of known plant species in living collections, and contribute valuable information on plant identification, geographic distributions, morphology, reproduction, and traditional uses. Further, each year botanical gardens worldwide connect 250 million visitors with living plants (Ballantyne 2008). On the other hand, plant biodiversity (weeds and crops) of agroecosystems worldwide has diminished since mechanized agriculture and the advent of herbicide/GMO crop systems(1). Of the approximately 7,000 edible species of plants on earth (Fern 2000), 309 were grown in 2010 at measureable scales (FAOSTAT 201 1b). Of these 309 species, 13 crops accounted for over 60% of the daily crop caloric intake by humans worldwide. In response to expanding public interest in agriculture, botanical gardens are putting increasing emphasis on connecting people with food plants. For example, in 2013 the Missouri Botanical Garden launched “Foodology: Digging Into the Roots of Your Food", a program that attracted more than 90,000 visitors to hands-on, interactive learning stations focused on helping people think about the sources of their food. Clearly, botanical gardens are well positioned to take on the task of educating people about agriculture, but gardens must embrace a series of sweeping reprioritizations in order to adapt their considerable resources to effectively engage the public on urgent food security needs. A framework for developing agricultural educational priorities in botanical gardens is currently being organized through a collaboration of the U.S. Botanic Garden, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, with other institutions invited to join in the effort. This project has yielded four broad subject areas that could form the conceptual backbone of botanical garden education programs: Agriculture impacts lives, Food comes from plants in the field, Agriculture is complex, and Agriculture relates to planetary boundaries. Such comprehensive and inclusive efforts to define informal educational curricula must be prioritized in order for gardens to provide much needed information to their visitors. This will require the explicit cooperation of botanical garden educators with experts in agronomy and multiple related social and natural sciences.