Plant blindness is a term related to our apparent inability to notice plants in their environment and a failure to recognise and appreciate the value of plants to life on earth, coupled with a belief that plants are somehow inferior to animals. Wildlife is typically perceived as only pertaining to animals, it importantly includes plantlife too. The phenomenon of plant blindness is direct consequence of urbanisation, and has been particularly pronounced over the past couple of decades now and suggests that we underappreciate the plantlife that is all around us.
Think about the last animal you saw. Can you remember its size and colour? Now try to remember the last plant you saw. Is the image of the animal a great deal sharper than that of the plant? If so, you are not alone.
As as example, a study, carried out in the US, investigated “attentional blink” – the ability to notice one of two rapid-fire images – using images of plants, animals and other unrelated things. The study showed that the candidates could more precisely detect images of animals than plants.
Plant blindness is a major worry for conservation and could have devastating consequences for not only the environment but also our survival, including potential novel food sources and biomedical medicines. Plant biology educational courses across the globe are being discontinued at a tremendous rate and public funding for plant science is diminishing. While there has been no official research carried out that focuses on the extent of plant blindness, and its change over time, rapid urbanisation and our obsessive occupation with digital devices and virtual worlds could result in “nature deficit disorder” (the harm caused due to a lack of exposure to plantlife) is on the way up. This results in a feedback cycle; the less exposure we have to plantlife the more plant blindness is the inevitable outcome. How can we recognise things we have never known?
The inevitable disastrous consequences for plant conservation affects not only environmental health but also human health and survival.
Botanical research is vital to many scientific discoveries, from more resilient food crops to more powerful and effective medicinal drugs.
Did you know that more than 28,000 plant species are used in medicine, including anti-carcinogenic drugs and blood thinners?
Plant research is also more ethical than testing on animals: adaptive techniques in subjects like genome editing can be processed using plantlife, which is far less complicated and cheaper to breed and control than animals. As an example, the genome sequencing of Arabidopsis, a flowering plant vital in botanical research, was a critical point not only in plant genetics, but in genome sequencing altogether.
Seeing how vital plantlife is to all aspects of human life, how did we become “plant-blind”?
There is an element of the physical and psychophysical structure within humans that results in plant blindness.
The physical aspect is thought to be due to the fact that green is the colour we can see much better than all other colours, and as plants tend to be similar in colour our brains tend to clump them together.
As for the psychophysical aspect, throughout our evolution, animals could be potentially hazardous and dangerous, they are also much more difficult to see and therefore we have a tendency to search out other colours, mostly ignoring shades of greens.
In addition, animals have the ability to move about and humans react more dynamically and rapidly when we see an animal, whether it's dangerous or not. It's genetically hardwired. Urbanisation, and the consumption of plants in our diets in the form of processed foods has amplified all of these above effects leading to plant blindness.
Shifting Away from Plant Blindness
To reduce plant blindness, conversations need to be developed where plants are included with animals when we are talking about wildlife.
To initiate this perception-shift, we must interact with and recognise plants in their environment. Support for plant conservation can be improved if more people are aware of the plight of plants as well as animals. Research at Exeter university has shown that this perception-shift can be significantly brought about when people of all ages indulge in the popular outdoor activity of foraging for wild foods.
So, plant blindness is neither universal nor inevitable. Although we may be genetically wired for plant blindness, we can, and must overcome it, with greater awareness, and closer interaction with nature.
The world's food production is becoming more and more challenging, due to a combination of population growth, water scarcity, less land for agriculture, and global warming. Through research on biofuels, plants are also a vital potential source of renewable energy.
Therefore, we must be able to discover, learn from, and innovate with plants. Our own survival depends on it.
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