Saturday, 9 July 2011
Mixed messages in St Louis
I’m an Australian, resident in London, visiting St Louis, and that doesn’t help me make any sense of this city. It’s the second time I’ve been here, and to the US. In 1999 I flew into Michigan to visit my friend and fellow phycologist Mike Wynne before driving south to St Louis, for the 16th International Botanical Congress.
That was the congress where the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation was conceived, or at least there was a twinkle in a few eyes, particularly those of Peter Raven, then President of the Missouri Botanical Garden. This week a group called the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (soon to have new weblink at http://www.plants2020.org/) looks at the second version of the Strategy, with targets for 2020, debating how well these have, and will, save plants of our world.
Right now I’m in the Saint Louis Bread Co. Cares café, almost enjoying a coffee. As far the brew goes in this city this cup isn’t so bad. Of course it’s too ‘long’ and although it tastes like coffee, it's not interesting coffee. But it’s drinkable and that’s a credit to the Co [Update: If you do find yourself in the Clayton area of St Louis, look up Kaldi's Coffee - they do a very nice double ristretto, as I found out on my last day in town - but also support the Co!]. The Missouri Botanical Garden doesn’t do an espresso at all so I need to get fortified before we mount the Ford Bus (pictured above) that not only takes us to the conference venue but has the carbon foot print of a small European country.
At Saint Louis Bread Co. Cares a donation is suggested for you purchase and you then pay more or less depending on your means. Nice idea and seems to work well – apparently they are close to making a profit (they are currently generating 75-80% of the retail value of the food and drink) after one year’s operation and they provide training and work opportunities for lots of local people.
Also relating to community sustainability I like the Askinosie chocolate bars on sale at the Missouri Botanical Garden shop. Very precise percentages of chocolate – 60, 70, 73 etc. – and details about where the beans are sourced and who grew them. At just over US$8 a bar it may be a little expensive but for taste and ethical eating, worth every dime. The downside of eating chocolate, aside from debatable health matters, is that 10% of native forest cleared in Columbia each year (a total of 300,000 ha) is for growing cocoa. That was something I found out at the conference...
Generally at the conference, held at Missouri Botanical Garden, the impact is a little less direct. We heard about networks and partnerships, about plans and strategies. The most exciting talks showed how the philosophy and vision of the Strategy actually made a difference in the real world, with a species saved from immediate extinction or product created that does just what users want. There is a positive vibe, and in a live National Public Radio panel discussion all panellists said they were optimistic for the future of the planet, that all plants could be saved and that the Strategy was a good thing. Clearly the passion is there, and the will.
So what went down at the meeting? Presentations from all over the world about how they were trying their best, with whatever resources they had, to find out what plants grew in their country, how safe they were, what needed to be done to make then safer, and in most cases starting something to safe them. Research on what people think about the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, and whether training and capacity in plant expertise is dropping (yes) were enlightening and helpful. As were detailed studies of how to tackle a problem (like an invasive weed) to get the biggest bang for your buck (in one case at least, concentrate on the stray plants away from the main population and get them under control first). And lots of facts, figures and pithy quotes – for those you’ll have to see @timentwisle or #gppc on Twitter.
In two weeks I leave London again, flying to Melbourne for the latest International Botanical Congress, the second since St Louis in 1999 – it only happens every six years. There the fate of Acacia will be debated (as I posted recently) and the latest botanical research will be shared amongst 2000 or so botanists. Again the question will be asked about how much a difference we are making and how well our science solves the problems facing the world. Again, a mixed response I expect.