Science Blog

Measuring Mantras

The business guru Peter Drucker was fond of saying that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. It is debatable to what extent conservation resembles business, but conservationists certainly seem to have taken this particular maxim very seriously. They measure everything. Or at least try to.

That really came home to me in Cape Town at the latest meeting of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC). GPPC, whose secretariat is provided by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (which gives you some idea of its membership), brings together international, regional and national organisations in order to contribute to the implementation of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (2011-2020). This has been backed by 180 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The GSPC is apparently the only species-level plant conservation initiative under the CBD, as we were repeatedly informed during our deliberations in the beautiful setting of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. So it’s pretty important. It consists of 16 ambitious targets, which range from producing an online database of all the world’s plants to making sure that all wild-harvested plant-based products are sourced sustainably. Countries and relevant international organizations are asked to report what they’re doing in each area, and the results are synthesized into a global assessment of how close the target is.

I was there because of Target 9, which, perhaps surprisingly for an initiative largely driven by botanists, addresses conservation of the genetic diversity of crops and of other useful plants (in parallel to another set of conservation targets, the Aichi Targets):

70 per cent of the genetic diversity of crops including their wild relatives and other socio-economically valuable plant species conserved, while respecting, preserving and maintaining associated indigenous and local knowledge.

There was a review of progress in 2014, published as the Plant Conservation Report, which concluded that progress was slow and patchy. The consensus last week was that this was still the case, just two years before the 2020 deadline. Maybe only one of the targets will be fully achieved, that online flora, but progress has nevertheless been significant in many areas.

And how are we doing with Target 9? Well, what really struck me, as I listened to reports on how many threatened plants or unique habitats are represented in protected areas in this or that country, is that with measurement, as with many other things, you can perhaps have too much of a good thing.

The fact is, we in the crop conservation community have our own way of measuring success, and have done for a while. It’s FAO’s World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Now, this could perhaps have a snappier name, and a pronounceable acronym, but it is well established and very comprehensive, with over 63 indicators monitored in the 18 priority thematic areas of the Global Plan of Action (GPA). Dozens of countries report on a fairly regular basis.

Genebanks that publish data on the Crop Trust-hosted Genesys online database contribute directly to the indicator on accession numbers. These in turn find their way, thanks to FAO, into the mechanism for monitoring Target 2.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Yes, another set of targets. And this particular target, worryingly, also has a rapidly approaching 2020 deadline.

But although the botanists I met last week were aware of the existence of the GPA and its monitoring mechanism, and of course knew about the SDGs, they did not seem to have used them much in their reporting on Target 9.

That’s as much down to us as to them. How effective have we in crop conservation been at communicating the targets we have agreed for the international collections managed by CGIAR centres, for example, and how close we are to achieving them? For the record, here’s how we’re doing:

  • Availability: 90% of accessions healthy and available for immediate distribution. By end 2017 the CGIAR Genebank Platform achieved availability of 79%.
  • Security: 90% of samples safety duplicated in two locations by 2022. By 2017, 55% of seed accessions and 79% of clonal accessions were secured.
  • Information: 90% of accessions have minimum passport or characterisation data online. By 2017, 95% of accessions have data available online.
  • Quality Management System: agreed elements of QMS in place at all genebanks.

Many of the people I talked to last week were surprised these targets and measurements even existed. Maybe we’ve done a bit better with crop wild relatives. But even some of that work, which has been widely reported, was news to many of those assembled in Kirstenbosch.

Drucker also said: the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said. So let me say it: We need a plan for post-2020. Let’s integrate existing targets and monitoring mechanisms for both wild and cultivated plants under the SDG framework.

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