1994, Brigitte Laliberté, MSc In Conservation, Birmingham University

M.Sc. course at Birmingham – Desalination Project in Tenerife

By Brigitte Laliberte. Agr. M.Sc.

Four years ago I came from Canada to work in the Tropical Department of the Living Collection Division. As with most people coming to Kew. being part of this great botanical institution was a fantastic opportunity to learn. In my case, the famous saying of the Tropical Department “It is only once you leave Kew that you realise how much you have learnt’., has never been so true. Kew seems to have made an indelible mark and a definite influence to my career and I can only be grateful that events took such a turn.

I had two years to gel to know as many people as possible involved in horticulture, conservation and taxonomy and this has been the real challenge for me. By the time my work visa expired I was ready and willing to further my education and plant conservation was to become my next career move. The M.Sc. course in Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources, at the University of Birmingham was the perfect choice for me, tying my background in Agricultural Sciences and my botanical experience acquired at Kew. I was not disappointed, even though I had very high expectations.

I am grateful to the crop genetic resources network for setting such high standards in plant conservation. The course has a practical approach to conservation as well as a strong emphasis on plant genetics. which is the real basis for conservation. The course has a three-months final thesis project for which I undertook a survey and analysis of seed banks in botanic gardens worldwide at the office of B.G.C.I. (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) at Kew. Botanic gardens are ideal institutions for setting up wild plant seed banks with the aim of preserving rare or threatened plants and of making available plant material for research.

The results of the survey were revealed to be very interesting, with a good response to the questionnaire sent to the 1,600 botanic gardens worldwide. It was found that 30.7% of those seed/genebanks surveyed have some form of low to cool storage facilities, with at least 255,832 accessions of germplasm stored and 17,096 accessions in field genebanks. Of the genebanks 20.4% were of long-term storage with the majority of their accessions stored at -18’C or less. The long-term seed banks surveyed have an average of 77% of their collections directly collected from the wild. Drying methods and the types of containers used by seed banks, remains a concern and more investigation would be needed to assess this situation. At the present, there is no central register of what their collections contain and it is of primary importance to create a network of seed banks for wild plant conservation.

There is also a great need for guidelines for the management of small collections of wild species with limited resources. From the survey it was also found that botanic gardens have to improve their capacity to store the information generated from the seed bank accessions on computer database systems, in order to create an international database and maintain an overview of botanic garden seed holdings. This survey can be used to prepare a draft strategy for the development of an International Botanic Garden Seed Bank Network, including a list of long-term data requirements and a forum for the exchange of ideas and news, and to help create new institutional links with the crop genetic resource sector.

But how can such training lead meta work on a desalination greenhouse project on Tenerife? The Canary Islands have an amazing flora with a wide range of variation over a very small area. They have more endemics than most islands, with over 500. In Europe, only mainland Spain and Greece have more endemic species, many times greater in area. The Canary Islands, like other arid lands of the world, have a major problem of water for agriculture. The Seawater Greenhouse for Arid Lands project in Tenerife has, for scientific objectives, to design, develop and demonstrate a cost effective means of producing both crops and pure water in hot, arid coastal regions.

The project exploits both the high solar radiation and prevailing wind to drive most of the processes. The pumped sea water is evaporated inside the greenhouse, creating a cool and humid environment suitable for a temperate vegetable crop such as lettuce and French beans. The humid air, carried by the wind through evaporation pads, is then condensed on the other side and fresh water is produced. The greenhouse itself produces enough fresh water to irrigate a crop inside and a shade tent area four times greater. It is hoped that enough water will be produced to support xerophytic plantings as well.

The brackish water generated from the process will be used to irrigate halophyte gardens. Several natural salt tolerant species are found on the site and the project will look into the conservation and re-establishment of indigenous halophytes on disturbed coastal lands in Tenerife. The project is only in its first phase and already exciting results are obtained. Once a gardener. . .


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