The so-called global problems are certainly global in their impact, but hunger, malnutrition, deforestation, desertification, and the rest originate mainly in the hot zone. For convenience I'll call that zone "the tropics," but I'm using the terminology to mean the region between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and I'm including the arid lands as well as the humid ones. In all the debate over global problems, the point being missed is that the tropics happen to be the location of the planet's greatest collection of biodiversity. It is in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where the most species are to be found. Thus there is a convergence between problems and plants; the greatest global hazards originating in the region where is found the greatest array of botanical wealth.
To better understand what I'm driving at, consider the following. In Africa, where the hunger problem is concentrated, there are actually 2,000 species of native food plants. Both there and in the rest of the tropics, the region where malnutrition is severest, can be found 3,000 different fruits as well as over 1,000 vegetables. In the lands where deforestation is so destructive are to be found over 20,000 trees, some of them extremely fast growing. In the desertifying regions can be found many useful drought-tolerant plants--I don't know how many, but it runs into the hundreds. And as far as soil degradation is concerned, the legume family (Fabaceae, Mimosaceae, and Caesalpiniaceae) has 18,000 species, most of which are the nitrogen fixers nature uses as botanical shock troops to achieve a bridgehead on worn-out soils. Many of these 18,000 legumes--collectively comprising the plant kingdom's third largest family--are native to the tropics and adapted to the lands that are wearing out.
Despite the existence of all this herbaceous heritage, hardly any tropical plant is being employed to full advantage to relieve the pervasive problems. Of Africa's 2,000 food plants, only sorghum gets major research, and then mainly to improve its ability to feed cattle in our part of the world. Of the 3,000 fruits, onlybanana andpineapple get solid global support, and again much of the effort is aimed at helping the rich rather than the needy. Of the 20,000 tropical trees, only a handful are undergoing global advancement, and financial support for even those few is hardly stellar. (Included in the few partially supported species areleucaena, mangium, calliandra, and neem, which my little program helped lift out of obscurity during the last 20 years.)
That the bulk of useful tropical biodiversity is underexploited is one of the glaring oversights of this era. The creation of more crops and the support for new-croppers is of global importance. Specialists who can sort through underexploited plants and locate the few, the very few, that can become new tools for use against the earth's main long-term problems are among the most valuable of all scientists.
New-croppers may carry out their sorting processes in various ways. Books of the type Mark Dafforn and I have been producing in our National Research Council program exemplify one way. Some of you probably don't know these books, but residents of developing countries know them. Over the years we have produced about 40 titles and distributed more than 700,000 copies to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, mostly without charge.
Our publications have covered such things as new crops for food, industrial materials, firewood, forage, timber, and environmental protection. In each, we integrate the wisdom and experience of hundreds of specialists and build the case for the crop with a lively text supported by instructive pictures and intriguing sidebars. The goal is to create a combination that not only convinces and educates readers of various levels of sophistication and interest, but motivates them to act. Put another way, we describe promising new crops in a balanced but bold manner that stimulates people and governments to undertake their own initiatives. The process works: individuals from many walks of life have seized upon these plants and carried them forward. Even at this conference you can glimpse the results. We helped in the early initiation phases of guayule, jojoba, the "lost" crops of the Americas, prosopis, amaranth, quinoa, yacon, leucaena, and others you are going to hear about in the next few days. However it is in countries of the tropics that we've had our greatest impacts. Two prime examples are vetiver and mangium.
The King of Thailand has become perhaps the greatest supporter of vetiver, the species described in our 1993 book, Vetiver Grass: A Thin Green Line Against Erosion. In Thailand the agriculture department, forests department, roads department, and border police are all propagating and planting this formerly obscure grass whose hedges are so dense they block the passage of soil. Also dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the tropics are adopting vetiver, and a network of researchers and a home page on the Internet have sprung up. In fact, vetiver is now working as an erosion barrier in 106 countries. Starting in 1979 we helped bring international recognition to the Australian rainforest tree Acacia mangium, known as mangium. At that time this fast-growing legume's potential was known to only a handful of foresters in Borneo. Today this tree has risen to become one of the top four reforestation species in Asia. The Indonesian government, alone, is relying on it to reforest 4.4 million ha.
Despite such gratifying results, our activity is now essentially dead. In 1993 the prime sponsor--the Global Bureau of the Agency for International Development--refused to keep funding the program. Subsequent years of dedicated effort have failed to produce any substitute funding source adequate to the task of keeping it alive. This is sad because the hot zone has not only plants and problems, it has people with a hunger for knowledge and an eagerness to put new crops to work. Give them information about a nutritious fruit or fast-growing tree and--especially if the information is presented in a bright and motivational way with names and addresses of contacts for seeds or local advice--they will adopt it with a zest amounting almost to reverence. Each day requests from such people pour into my office from around the Third World. Most of the writers currently want Neem; A Tree for Solving Global Problems. In the last three years I've sent out more than 30,000 copies of that book along with almost 40,000 copies of the vetiver counterpart, which is one reason why neem has become tropical forestry's hottest tree and vetiver is being employed in 106 countries.
Making a noticeable change in the atmospheric imbalance is no pipe dream. Indonesia's mangium plantings involve some 5 billion trees, and (given the fact that mangium can grow 3 m in a year) each tree absorbs perhaps 20 kg of carbon dioxide annually. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that Indonesia's mangiums will absorb about 2% of the surplus carbon dioxide that United States emits. Even if I'm wrong in the calculations (a likelihood verging on certainty), the amount of greenhouse gas removed will be substantial. Moreover, there's every reason to expect Indonesia's experience can be replicated many fold elsewhere.
Around this theme of using new crops to rebalance the atmosphere are numerous possible elaborations. For one thing, the process doesn't require trees at all. In fact, the growing roots of perennial grasses and other herbaceous species can sequester carbon dioxide underground. Thailand's anticipated billions of vetiver plants--a single experiment station near Chiang Rai expects by the year 2001 to have propagated 1.5 billion--will alone make a substantial contribution because the massive network of roots descend vertically 5 m and more. Using vetiver for all its above-ground benefits--erosion control, watershed restoration, pollution mining and the rest--might provide a great means for squirreling atmospheric carbon dioxide underground as an environmental by-product.
Support for such plantings might come from unexpected sources. For instance, the power company here in Indianapolis might sponsor the planting of millions of trees in, let's say, Belize or Burundi or Bangladesh. It could then boast of being innocent of contributing to global warming. Such efforts would also help reforest the tropics and provide shade and shelter for the world's most beleaguered peoples. Moreover, anyone who planted tropical food trees for carbon-dioxide sequestration would be helping feed the hungry while ensuring that the trees would not be cut down willy nilly the next time someone lazy needs a little firewood.
One such area is North Africa, a vast and desertifying area whose social collapse could take us from the Cold War to something like a reprise of the Crusades. One (hopefully fanciful) scenario involves Western troops facing hordes of villagers-turned-fanatics marching out of places such as Algeria and Libya and heading toward Israel, Mecca, and the world's main oil spigots around the Gulf. Of course things are unlikely to ever get that bad, but it seems to me new-croppers everywhere should be urgently funded to work on crops to stabilize North Africa's desertifying regions. Possible target species include jojoba, several species of prosopis, spineless cactus, tagasaste (a leguminous shrub from the Canary Islands), neem, leucaena, vetch, and jatropha (a plant that thrives in degraded lands and produces an oil that can be used for running diesel engines). These and other extremely drought-tolerant species can provide income, forage, and food as well as better living conditions and improved rural environments. Most of all, by bringing hope to the masses these new crops can help retain social stability, perhaps making one of the greatest contributions to long-term peace.
The other geopolitically vital desertifying area is South Africa. Here, too, the situation is both fragile and fraught with potential mass disillusionment and possible major disaster. The world is lucky to have Nelson Mandela, but he is not a young man and new-croppers should be helping him get South Africa quickly on its feet. Again the areas of greatest impoverishment are arid. New drought-tolerant plants (many of them the same as just listed) could turn out to be more significant than any of the diplomatic and political initiatives under consideration.
To best accomplish this and to most efficiently capture the power inherent in such species, we really need a new branch of science. You might call it "Applied Biodiversity," the science for applying the full spectrum of natural-resources to the world's (not to mention the nation's) problems. That new discipline would be more vital in a practical sense than applied physics or applied mathematics. Indeed, applied biodiversity could be the most valuable of all the sciences. Yet it doesn't exist.
In theory, building this new frontier of science shouldn't be difficult. The biodiversity is there, the need is there, the latent interest is there, and only modest financial support is required. But it will indeed be difficult because the barrier is one of the mind. Currently, conventional crops dominate the priorities of all decisionmakers and institutions. This is understandable, however the present attitudes are skewed so steadfastly against creating new funding initiatives that grand opportunities for progress are being lost.
The species and situations I've mentioned above exemplify what might be achieved for mother earth. But no matter how important such topics could be, no part of government seems capable of supporting efforts to check them out; not the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Agency for International Development, the Department of Energy, nor the Environmental Protection Agency. And in my experience, most foundations are just as resistant to the possibilities of applying biodiversity against the global problems.
It's up to us to change this. We must find ways to get the new-croppers' knowledge of plants and techniques of crop assessment into global play. In other words, the knowledge, visions, insights, spirit of endeavor, and capabilities represented at this conference is of historical significance. To my way of thinking, new-croppers are among the most needed people on earth. With our special skills we can provide the tools for solving the problems that threaten today's future the way the nuclear holocaust did during that agonizing period when most of us were growing up.
Underexploited Tropical Plants with Promising Economic Value. 1975. 184 p.
Making Aquatic Weeds Useful. 1976. 169 p.
Guayule: An Alternative Source of Natural Rubber. 1977. 77 p.
Tropical Legumes. 1979. 326 p.
Firewood Crops: Shrub and Tree Species for Energy Production. 1980. 236 p.
Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Underutilized Animal. 1981. 111 p.
The Winged Bean: A High-Protein Crop for the Humid Tropics. 1981. 41 p.
Producer Gas: Another Fuel for Motor Transport. 1983. 95 p.
Mangium and Other Fast-Growing Acacias. 1983. 56 p.
Calliandra: A Versatile Tree for the Humid Tropics. 1983. 45 p.
Butterfly Farming in Papua New Guinea. 1983. 33 p.
Crocodiles as a Resource for the Tropics. 1983. 52 p.
Little-Known Asian Animals With Promising Economic Future. 1983. 125 p.
Firewood Crops: Shrub and Tree Species for Energy Production, Volume 2. 1983. 103 p.
Casuarinas: Nitrogen-Fixing Trees for Adverse Sites. 1984. 112 p.
Amaranth: Modern Prospects for an Ancient Crop. 1984. 74 p.
Leucaena: Promising Forage and Tree Crop (Second edition, 1984. 93 p.
Jojoba: A New Crop for Arid Lands. 1985. 100 p.
Quality-Protein Maize. 1988. 100 p.
Triticale: A Promising Addition to the World's Cereal Grains. 1989. 103 p.
Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. 1989. 415 p.
Microlivestock: Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future. 1991. 450 p.
Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems. 1992. 149 p.
Vetiver: A Thin Green Line Against Erosion. 1993. 185 p.
Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 1--Grains. 1996. 383 p.
Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 2--Fruits. (In preparation).
Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 3--Vegetables. (In preparation).
Underexploited Tropical Fruits with Promising Economic Value. (In preparation).
Tropical Fruits for Solving Global Problems. (In preparation).