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Freshwater Management Series No. 7

Phytotechnologies

A Technical Approach in Environmental Management

Introduction - An Ecosystem's Perspective >

C. Phytotechnology

Sunset over riverbank  

The term phytotechnology describes the application of science and engineering to study problems and provide solutions involving plants. Although the term is not widely used, it is useful in promoting a broader understanding of the importance of plants and their beneficial role within both societal and natural systems. Underlying this concept is the use of plants as living technologiesto help address environmental challenges.

Phytotechnology applications employ ecological engineering principles and are considered to be ecotechnologies. Hence phytotechnologies are based on the science of ecology and consider the ecosystem as an integral component of human and societal interventions involving the natural environment.

A related term is biotechnology, which refers to the application of science and engineering to study problems and provide solutions involving living beings. The term biotechnology can also refer to the manipulation of the genetic structure of cells to produce modified organisms with an augmented capacity to perform certain functions. Table 3 summarizes these definitions.

Table 3: Defining Phytotechnology

eco = living systems, ecological TECHNOLOGY = the application of science and engineering to study problems and provide solutions ecotechnology = the application of science and engineering to study problems and provide solutions involving ecological systems
PHYTO = plant, flora, vegetation PHYTOTECHNOLOGY = the application of science and engineering to study problems and provide solutions involving plants
bio = life, of living beings, biological biotechnology = the application of science and engineering to study problems and provide solutions involving living beings

Just as there are many different applications of biotechnology, there are also many different applications of phytotechnology. Some of these applications are well established in sectors such as medicine, agriculture and forestry to name a few. There are also many important environmentally related applications.

As shown in Table 4, the environmentally beneficial applications of phytotechnologies can generally be divided into five categories: augmenting the adaptive capacity of natural systems to moderate the impacts of human activities; preventing pollutant releases and environmental degradation; controlling pollutant releases and environmental processes to minimize environmental degradation; remediation and restoration of degraded ecosystems; and incorporating indicators of ecosystem health into monitoring and assessment strategies.

The integrated ecosystems management component of this focuses on the use of phytotechnologies to augment the capacity of natural systems to absorb impacts. The prevention component involves the use of phytotechnologies to avoid the production and release of environmentally hazardous substances and/or the modification of human activities to minimize damage to the environment; this can include product substitution or the redesign of production processes. The control component addresses chronic releases of pollutants and the application of phytotechnologies to control and render these substances harmless before they enter the environment. The remediation and restoration component embodies phytotechnologies and methods designed to recuperate and improve ecosystems that have declined due to naturally induced or anthropogenic effects. The monitoring and assessment component involves the use of phytotechnologies to monitor and assess the condition of the environment, including releases of pollutants and other natural or anthropogenic materials of a harmful nature.

Table 4: Environmentally Beneficial Applications of Phytotechnologies

Environmentally Beneficial Applications of Phytotechnologies

Some specific examples of phytotechnology applications include:

The use of plants to reduce or solve pollution problems that otherwise would be more harmful to other ecosystems. An example is the use of wetlands for wastewater treatment.
The replication of ecosystems and plant communities to reduce or solve a pollution problem. Examples are constructed ecosystems such as ponds and wetlands for treatment of wastewater or diffuse pollution sources.
The use of plants to facilitate the recovery of ecosystems after significant disturbances. Examples are coal mine reclamation and the restoration of lakes and rivers.
The increased use of plants as sinks for carbon dioxide to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Examples of this are reforestation and afforestation.
The use of plants to augment the natural capacity of urban areas to mitigate pollution impacts and moderate energy extremes. An example is the use of rooftop vegetation, or “ greenroofs”. More information and examples about the use and applications of phytotechnology is presented in Section 3.
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