Plants & People

Most plants come from seeds. What does this mean for us?

Adult plants provide sustenance, sequester carbon and help keep healthy soils. But what is the role of seeds?

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Plants are unquestionably crucial to the well being of our society. However, what’s the first thing that pops out in our minds when we consider their benefits? Oxygen production and carbon sequestration, some people may reply. Others might remember that plants provide food and raw materials that we use in our everyday life. Plants shaping the climate and contributing to soil health, wouldn’t be wrong either. But what do all these benefits have in common? They are mostly derived from adult plants.

If your answer was one of the above, you’re not alone. The bias in our understanding of the benefits we obtain from plants is also present in academia and is reflected in the tremendous amount of work that has been done around placing monetary value on the services previously mentioned. However, a study published in Trends in Plant Science provides a fascinating starting point to assess the value of seeds—which, until recently, has been overlooked. 

A research team led by Dr. Efisio Mattana from The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, assessed the natural capital value of seeds using a total economic value framework. This approach implies that to establish the value of a given asset or resource, one must consider the benefits, both monetary and non-monetary, obtained through its existence and its use, whether direct, indirect, or yet to be discovered. 

The components of the natural capital value of seeds and some selected examples. Figure by Carlos A. Ordóñez-Parra with icons from Flaticon.com

That a given resource has a value for existing means its importance goes beyond its use, even if that importance cannot be monetized. For example, seeds have tremendous evolutionary and ecological significance since they were a key innovation that allowed the first land plants to migrate from water to land. Moreover, seeds interact with a whole host of organisms, including microorganisms, granivores and seed dispersers, making them an essential resource in almost every ecosystem on Earth. In fact, around 70% of all plant species known to science reproduce by seeds, and without them our planet would look very different from what it is today. Our planet would be missing more than half of the plant species we know and would miss out on many of the functions plants perform as adults. 

When it comes to their use, it’s easy to find examples of how seeds are part of our everyday routine. As we eat cereals, legumes and nuts, like oats, beans and walnuts, its direct use is relatively evident. Flour, oils and fibers coming from wheat, sunflower and cotton seeds, respectively, are good reminders that seeds are part of our lives even if we are not using them directly! Step outside your home or take a look at your shirt and seeds will still follow you. 

Seeds in a number of baskets

Every plant product is linked to seeds as most plants used in agriculture and forestry are propagated through seeds. Beyond agriculture, seeds of several species are central to the identity of different cultures worldwide, like the Colombian Coffee Cultural Landscape –recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO– and the Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine. If all these uses were not diverse enough, scientists agree there are still plants (along with their potential uses) to be discovered. This value, defined by the authors as option value, includes all the potential seed traits or properties that might be used in the development of new commercial and technological applications, such as materials, fuels and medicines. In fact, Mattana and his colleagues highlight that identifying new uses of seed-derived products is a promising field of research that could contribute to more efficient and sustainable agriculture and to unlocking the potential of plant resources.

As a result of this analysis, the authors show that seeds contribute greatly to society’s well being and have an enormous biological, economic and cultural value. Moreover, they state that seeds “represent the main assets for nature-based solutions at the species […] and ecosystem level.” In other words, seeds are of paramount importance for developing strategies to successfully protect, manage and restore biodiversity. Not in vain, storing native seeds in seed banks and using them for ecological restoration are increasingly recognized as cost-effective techniques for plant conservation and ecosystem restoration. Hopefully, this research will sow the seed of a future where the value of seeds is fully appreciated.

A germinated seedling

RESEARCH ARTICLE

Mattana, E., Ulian, T., & Pritchard, H. W. (2021). Seeds as natural capital. Trends in Plant Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2021.08.008


Carlos A. Ordóñez-Parra (he/him) is a Colombian MSc. Student at the Plant Biology Program at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brazil). Besides his research in seed functional ecology, he is interested in science communication and has written for Pesquisa Javeriana and Revista Javeriana at his former university in Colombia, and Plant Science Research Weekly – the weekly roundup published by Plantae.org. Follow him on Twitter @caordonezparra.


Spanish translation by Lorena Villanueva Almanza

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