The Swedish botanist Carlos Linnaeus was blissfully unaware of the repercussions his nomenclature in 1753 would have centuries later in 2021. He was the first to identify the Ipomoea genus, naming 17 species under the same name. This meant that any new discoveries were compared to those original 17 species, consequently expanding the genus to include over 900 species to this day. However, scientists are now taking action after talk of changing the name of the well-loved sweet potato.
They are arguing that the change in name could have profound disruption and cost to the food industry and any company that commercialises it as it will cause changes in legislation and health and safety guidelines but it will also require changes in packaging and marketing updates for companies that directly commercialise from it or any of its by-products such as sweets, crisps, flour etc. This will all come at a cost, which will also come at a cost to the consumer. And considering that the sweet potato is the 7th most cultivated food crop in the world, it will impact on many.
The Convolvulaceae family contains approximately 1,880 species, as well as 60 genus. One of these genus is the Ipomoea genus, containing around 900 species. This genus has been found to contain another two groups within it; one group that encompasses the ornamental and weedy morning glory flowers as well as the sweet potato, and the other that encompasses plants native to Africa and South-East Asia. However, these two groups have been on different evolutionary paths for 20-25 million years, so failing to distinguish them from one another erases some of this evolutionary information.
Scientists are suggesting that tradition, in this case, shouldn’t be followed as it will cause to many complications and confusions. They argue that the Sweet potato name should be changed to Ipomoea tribola, which is a close relative of the sweet potato. Scientists argue that changing the name to this will keep the group with the highest diversity intact, while also aiding with the classification of new species, but also helping to conserve existing threatened species that weren’t distinguished from the “ornamental” and weedier, often American-type species. This will consequently allow for conservationists to protect these endangered species with more ease.
Not only this, but the suggested name will also avoid a communication breakdown between scientists and the agriculture industry, while also avoiding surges in costs for the consumer.
The proposal will be voted on at the 2023 International Botanical Congress in Rio de Janeiro.
Do you believe that there should be a change in the tradition of classification of plant species, or do you think tradition should be adhered to?