Greenest deal ever? From an auto firm

By Peter Hulm

The company's called Plentiful Rice. You probably know it as Toyota, its name in Japanese. It's the world's best-selling car maker.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) is regularly described as the best-kept secret among environmental organizations. You've probably heard of its Red List of endangered species. It's the go-to place for info on elephants and rhinos, sharks and turtles.

Plentiful Rice is now funding IUCN's Red Listers in a program designed to increase the chances of food security. It's what we, Earth's human population, need in a time of climate change caused in part by our addiction to the gas-guzzling automobile.

28,000 species on list

IUCN's Director-General Inger Andersen and Toyota's European Chairman Didier Leroy signed an agreement in Geneva on 10 May committing the auto company to fund research into the risks of extinction for more than 28,000 species over the next five years.

It may prove the most significant deal yet for our future on this planet in the face of global warming. And the chances are you didn't hear much about it.

Jane Smart, Director of IUCN's Global Species Programme, points out that "80% of our calorie intake comes from just 12 dominant agricultural crops and 50% of these calories come from just the three big grasses: wheat, maize and rice."

"We now live in a world where climate change is affecting the way our food grows," she told journalists at the Geneva Press Club in a news conference that was also broadcast to reporters elsewhere.

Little known

"The key to finding new crops that can adapt to warmer and different climates is to conserve the relatives of these crops in the wild," she argued. "This is because these wild relatives are the source of genetic material used to develop new varieties of crops."

This requires countries and scientists to know how endangered these wild plants are.

"If these crops became extinct," said Dr Smart, "there would be [a] huge impact on food security and livelihoods. Yet little is known about the state of these crop wild relatives [and] what actions we need to take not only [to] protect them but to enable them to thrive."

... and fish

So IUCN will be focusing much of the research funded by Toyota on wild rice, wild wheat and other domestic crop relatives in the wild.

"We are also focusing on marine fish such as sardines, pilchards and sole because they are a source of food for billions the world over," Dr Smart adds.

In 2016 Toyota will give some $1.2 million toward the project, it was announced.

Ms Andersen said the gift "will enable our Red List researchers to take a big leap forward towards reaching our goal of assessing 160,000 species by 2020."

Red List goal is 160,000 species by 2020

IUCN has 1300 member organizations and a network of 15,000 experts. Its Red List research is often the first step towards conservation policy and action, including controls enacted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), where IUCN is a technical advisor.

The Red List, just over 50 years old, has assessed nearly 80,000 species and rates 23,000 of them as threatened with extinction. More than 3.5 million people visit the IUCN Web platform each year to access data in the Red List. The Toyota grant will go to upgrading this platform as well as help fund activities to improve biodiversity awareness.

The money will also support research into other economically important plants, fungi, freshwater fish, reptiles and invertebrates such as dragonflies, the partners announced.

Environmental Challenge 2050

In October 2015 Toyota announced a six-goal programme entitled Environmental Challenge 2050.

Though the first three challenges of Toyota's 2050 goals aim at reducing emissions, the other three focus on resources, such as water and recycling as well as (Challenge 6) "being in harmony with nature".

The IUCN grant is its first activity under this heading.

The signing took place on the same day that the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens released the first State of the World's Plants report. It announced that one-fifth of the world's plants are under threat of extinction.

"A recent inventory has revealed that there are currently 3,546 prioritised global plant taxa identified as 'crop wild relatives' and Kew's Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) includes 688 crop wild relatives among its over 78,000 accessions, but there are still substantial gaps," the Report notes (pages 20-23).

Growing impact

Kew says climate change is responsible for only 4% of the threat to plant species at present but the percentage is likely to grow, with the full impact perhaps 30 years down the line.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, for example, estimates that up to 30% of areas growing maize and bananas, and up to 60% growing beans, "are likely to become unviable by the end of the century". Cassava and yams, however, are showing "much great resilience" (pages 36-39). So these, along with drought-resistant cereals such as millet and sorghum may be the "climate-smart" crops of the future.

The IUCN project offers a focused way forward on assessing in detail plants we rely on for our nutrition and may need to switch to in the future. Not a bad return for a $6 million investment.