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Greening Means Plants

Plant Perspectives in Canada’s Biodiversity Strategy Milestone Document, December 2023

Stefan Weber, PhD - Canadian Wildlife Federation 

There is great need for ecological restoration in southwestern Ontario—the most biodiverse and densely populated region of Canada. However, commitments to mitigate climate change and restore biodiversity can be found at all levels of government in Canada—and all round the world as we approach the midpoint of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. 

Unfortunately, plants are regularly overlooked in sustainable development goals internationally, and plant diversity itself is often missing as a target within broadscale restoration efforts. Plants rarely get due credit in our lives, but let’s not forget why sustainability is associated with the colour green—because life as we know it depends on plants.  

In December, the federal government released a progress report on building Canada’s Biodiversity Strategy. This Milestone Document communicates a commitment to conserve and revitalize nature in Canada, laying out priorities for biodiversity, summarized from research, consultation, and engagement.  

Overall, this is a positive document; it reaffirms federal commitment to biodiversity-- including plants. It reiterates that the Canadian government has a responsibility to support “sustainable development of natural resources, and plant resource protection,” and recognizes that sustainable agriculture depends on the “genetic diversity of domesticated animals, plants and their wild relatives.”  

Unfortunately, we are reminded that there are only two federally managed collections of plant genetic resources -- Plant Gene Resources Canada and The National Tree Seed Centre. While these agencies do excellent work, their reach and capacity are limited. Fortunately, the federal government also participates in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture. The document does acknowledge that wild plants hold cultural significance for Indigenous peoples and that accessing and conserving these species is important “in meeting nutritional needs and food security.”  

An overarching theme in this document is that “governments could greatly contribute to biodiversity enhancement through the identification of priority areas for restoration.” Collaboration will be key, and the federal-provincial-territorial Biodiversity Working Group has identified ecosystem restoration as a topic of interest moving forward.  

However, it seems odd that native plants are not referred to more explicitly throughout the Milestone Document, given how much life on land relies on them. Plants are the foundation of food chains; they passively sequester carbon while shading the earth and nurturing the soil. Plants characterize and physically structure what most folks would call “habitat.” Therefore, habitat re-creation on land usually involves revegetation—planting seeds or seedlings. Some landscapes have intact soil seedbanks through which they can regenerate passively, naturally. Degraded soils may lack a native seed bank, and these lands need human intervention to bring the right seeds and plants back to avoid weed invasion, water degradation, and loss of animal life.  

While plants are not ignored entirely, many of the ecological values that native plants provide are not reflected explicitly in this document. I think this is shown by the decoupling of restoration and climate change as targets. Both hinge on native plants; increasing native plant cover and diversity increases carbon sequestration and creates habitat. In many ways, restoration is the vaguest target in this document, though it contributes to nine other targets, as reported in the document. I think plants are the missing link here.  

Meeting many of the goals outlined in the Milestone Document will require specific consideration and action related to native plant conservation, so let’s acknowledge that. Let’s connect those goals that depend on sustainably managed native plant populations, and a source of cultivated native plant seeds, seedlings, and cuttings as the basis for ecosystem rehabilitation. Direct links to native plants can be made in Targets: 1-9, and 11-15, with indirect links in all other targets. Can we say the same about butterflies, for example? It seems as if a large part of the biodiversity strategy will require a strategy for native plant conservation and restoration.  

How can we improve the Biodiversity Strategy by focusing on the role of native plants? One way is by developing specific actions around what we mean by restoration of degraded landscapes. Degraded lands often need to be revegetated, and not just with a handful of tree species that are easy to grow.  Target 2 of Canada’s Biodiversity Strategy is Ecosystem Restoration. Strikingly, native plants, seeds, or seedlings are not mentioned within it. How can we accomplish broadscale restoration of degraded landscapes without considering the native plants that have been removed, and those we need to bring back? Target 2 contains five focal areas. Considering each of these from a plant-perspective will help to coordinate and accelerate these actions on the ground:  

a) “Restoration blueprint for defining priorities and gaps”: the restoration blueprint of degraded areas could be further fine-tuned to identify which restoration approach might be needed, including but not limited to native seed addition, seedling planting, controlled burning, removal, or introduction of grazers/livestock, etc. For the areas that require active revegetation, native plant species are the most ecologically appropriate option. A blueprint of native plant needs is crucial information to communicate to the industry that grows and collects them.   

b) “Partnerships and collaboration”: are needed also with the industries and communities that provide ecological restoration services, including those who grow and harvest native seeds or produce seedlings. One way that restoration provides connections between people and nature is by employing local economies to grow the seeds needed to revegetate and to steward healthy plant communities as habitat for all other life on land.  

c) “On-the-ground implementation”: in many cases may be acts of revegetation or reintroduction of native vegetation to restore degraded land. This type of active human intervention into ecosystem recovery requires coordination and planning of seeds, and support for the industry providing restoration-horticulture services. Other types of restoration, from controlled burns to invasive plant removal could also be considered through the lens of native plant community intervention.  

d) “Addressing knowledge gaps”: seed-based restoration is one option to restore degraded land, and the greatest knowledge gap in implementation is understanding where on the landscape different types of interventions are needed and likely to succeed, including which areas would benefit from re-vegetation or plant species augmentation. This information allows the restoration economy to grow to fill that specific demand.  

e) “Preventing ecosystem degradation and facilitating ecosystem restoration”: ecosystem degradation could be slowed and ecosystem restoration facilitated by strengthening policies and processes that advance ecological restoration associated with mining, forestry, agriculture, and civic infrastructure. This should include specifications for the use of local native plants, so the demand generated by these additional requirements could be estimated and communicated to Canadian producers, helping to coordinate the supply chain.