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Living for plants

Presenting the TV series, Grow Your Own Drugs, or co-hosting Radio 4 shows. Designing award-winning gardens, or helping everyone eat better, tastier food through his best-selling books. As a self-confessed botany geek, James Wong has built a career around plants.

In fact, James can’t remember a time when he wasn’t completely fascinated by them. Having grown up in Singapore, he moved to the UK in 1999 to begin a Master of Science degree in Ethnobotany at the University of Kent and Kew Gardens. Ethnobotany was of particular interest to him, for the way it combines botany and anthropology to examine how different cultures around the world grow and use plants.

Shortly after graduating and completing a placement at the BBC, James joined Kew Gardens to pursue his key research interests: underutilised crop species and food systems in rural Ecuador, Java and Southern China.

Protecting the planet

The weather and climate change are naturally of crucial importance to James and his work – and he is involved with a global network that catalogues and preserves plants at critical risk of becoming extinct.

“Plants are one of many tools helping to mitigate biodiversity loss.”

“Plants are one of many tools helping to mitigate biodiversity loss, acting rather like living solar panels to mop up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Amazingly, global forests remove more CO2 every day than what’s produced by all the world’s transport combined. So, preserving them is essential, especially in places such as Borneo, where over 75% of deforestation has occurred in just the last 50 years,” says James.

Growing knowledge

Being an avid science communicator, James is also keen to challenge certain cultural – and sometimes controversial – beliefs. For example, that ‘organic’ food is automatically healthier or more nutritious than non-organic. Or that locally grown food is always better for the environment.

“These might be very comforting, cosy narratives,” he says, “but it’s been shown that food flown in from the other side of the world produces a negligible amount of carbon emissions compared to heating the massive greenhouses we use in the UK.”

Sweet taste of stress

More recently, James has been involved with some ground-breaking research into the defensive chemicals tomato plant cells produce when put under stress.

These chemicals can be used in production methods known as ‘dry farming’, which is becoming increasingly popular in drought-prone countries such as Southern California, Spain and Israel. It works by combining sea and fresh water and reduces the plant’s overall consumption of H2O, ultimately resulting in sweeter-tasting tomatoes.

Breeding resistance

James is also involved with developing seeds specifically to withstand climate change unpredictability. As he explains, this is not without challenges.

“Breeding a plant that’s adapted for all conditions is tricky. Instead, we’re creating a comprehensive suite of new seed varieties – some of which grow well in desert-like environments, and others that can cope with waterlogging. It’s a long, painstaking process. Annual crops produce seeds within 12 months. But trees, like apples, need 20 years’ worth of generations to reveal enough meaningful characteristics.”

Magic mushrooms

Another area of interest for James is how fruit and vegetables are stored before getting to market, known as post-harvest technology. The methods employed can make a huge difference to the nutritional value of the food.

A great example of this is how placing fresh mushrooms on a sunny windowsill for a few hours increases their Vitamin D content by an incredible 1,000%. This is because the ergosterol in mushroom membranes reacts like our skin when exposed to UV light. As James concludes:

“Every food you eat, and every breath you take, is quite literally created by plants. So they’re pretty fundamental to humanity. And what I love about science is that accuracy is what matters, not popularity. If I find a surprising fact buried deep within a scientific journal and turn it into something people get excited about and can actually use – things like that really make my day.”