How Do Humans Use Plants?

Aiden Ford, David Wood
  • Author
    Aiden Ford

    Aiden Ford has taught Earth, Life and Physical Science for five years in grades 6-8. Aiden has a Bachelors of Arts in Human Ecology from the College of the Atlantic.

  • Instructor
    David Wood

    David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the uses of plants. Understand why plants are important to humans, and explore some uses of plants for humans in everyday life and what plants are used. Updated: 11/19/2021

Table of Contents


Why Are Plants Important to Humans?

If you take a look around, you will find plants everywhere. Plants are in the walls of homes, the clothes we wear, and the foods we eat. Plants are responsible for producing the electricity powering your device and all the oxygen in the atmosphere, which we need to breathe. Every living thing in every ecosystem depends on plants for energy and life.

Plants are organisms that can photosynthesize. They have cells with a cell wall and are therefore rigid to some degree. They are stationary, do not have a nervous system, and show indeterminate growth, which means they do not have a final body structure but will grow until death. Plants are vital to all life forms on Earth. Specifically, plants are essential to humans because they have many uses, some of which we depend on for our survival.

Plants are usually made up of different organ structures, such as roots, stems, and leaves. About eighty percent of all plants today are flowering plants. This group of plants is known as angiosperms, such as all fruits, most deciduous trees, and even grasses. Plants that do not produce flowers are known as gymnosperms, including pine and fur trees, mosses, and ferns. Humans use all parts of plants. Roots are traditionally used as food, medicine, and crafts. Stems are used as building materials and also as food, depending on the plant. Leaves are used as food, medicine, and tea. This lesson will detail what plants do for humans, the many ways we use plants, and why they are so integral to life on planet Earth.

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Plants Give Us Oxygen

Plants are the only type of organism that produces oxygen in a process called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is when plants convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose, which is sugar, and oxygen using the energy from the sun. Approximately 2.45 billion years ago, a primitive type of plant known as cyanobacteria was the first type of organism to photosynthesize, resulting in the production of oxygen that filled the ancient atmosphere. This, in turn, provided one of the fundamental requirements for the evolution of animal life.

Uses of Plants

The use of plants is extensive. Plants are used for almost every function of human life. To make it through the day without interacting with a plant or plant product would be a difficult task. Uses of plants include:

  • A food source
  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • Medicine
  • Luxury goods
  • Fuel

Plants as a Food Source

One of the most common uses of plants is for food. Humans need food to live and can only go approximately three weeks without food before perishing. Even food that is not a plant, like meat and dairy, requires plants to produce. There are over 300,000 species of plants on Earth, but only 6-7 thousand of them have been used to consume food, and about 170 species are of commercial significance. This includes all fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and beans. There is also a wide variety of plant-based foods, such as bread, pasta, sauces, and beverages of all kinds. Most people worldwide rely on just a few staple crops or specific species of plants that make up a dominant portion of a population's diet. These staple crops are wheat, corn (maize), rice, soybeans, tubers, and roots, including potatoes, cassava, and sweet potatoes.

For perspective, let's look at corn production. Native Peoples first cultivated corn or maize in Mesoamerica, and thus it is native to the Americas. In the 2020-2021 harvest, the USA produced and exported 69.8 million metric tons of corn to seventy-three different countries. Only 40% of the corn grown is consumed by humans, while 60% is used for feed and additives. The most common type of corn produced is field corn or dent corn, which is used to feed livestock and make corn syrup and corn starch. Sweet corn is mainly consumed, and it, along with popcorn and field corn, makes up the top three types cultivated in the United States. Corn is also widely used to make biofuel. Biofuel is a fuel source produced from organic material and is processed to make ethanol and often mixed with gasoline.

Sweet corn is the second largest type of corn produced.

Sweet corn

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the production of corn in the United States. Growing corn takes space, and currently, 90 million acres are used to produce corn in the US. This has greatly reduced the number of native ecosystems left in the midwest, where most US corn is grown. In Illinois, one of the largest producers of corn, only .01% of native prairie is still in existence; the rest has been turned into cornfields. Only six types are mass-produced in that space, causing corn to become a monoculture, which is when only one or a few crops are grown, leading to genetic weakness and leaving the crop vulnerable to diseases. Because monocultures are susceptible to diseases, using enormous amounts of pesticides is common.

Additionally, plants have evolved to grow in an ecosystem with other organisms that both rely on and support the production of plants. Corn is a grass, and grasses need a lot of nitrogen to grow. Growing just one type of plant takes a lot of nutrients from the soil. This is why modern farming practices often over-fertilize fields to give the crops the necessary nutrients to be mass-produced. Both of these agricultural practices are harmful to the environment.

Plants as Clothing and Shelter

The use of plants also includes the creation of clothing and shelter. Plants used for clothing include hemp, cotton, ramie, and flax. These types of plants produce fibrous materials. Fibers are long thin hairlike structures created from different parts of the plant, depending on the species. Hemp clothing is made from fibers extracted from the stems of the hemp plant, while cotton fiber is harvested from parts of the plant's fruit. Cotton is one of the most produced plants used for clothing worldwide. In 2021, 27 million metric tons of cotton were produced, mainly in India, China, the US, Pakistan, and Brazil.

Cotton has strong, long fibers that hold together well and thus is used widely for clothing.


Cotton is the world's most valuable non-food plant produced. However, it is also one of the leading contributors to climate change. Cotton production is notorious for using mass amounts of harmful pesticides that pose health risks for harvesters and contribute to water pollution. In addition to water pollution, the cotton industry requires an enormous amount of water to produce cotton products; it takes 10 tons of water to make one pair of blue jeans. All of these factors negatively affect the planet by contaminating groundwater and emptying entire seas. Cotton remains in high demand, not only for clothing but also for diapers, coffee filters, and even money. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 25% of cotton is produced by forced labor. However, there are organic and ethically made cotton products being produced and sold, and efforts to eradicate modern slavery within the cotton industry are underway.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some uses of plants?

Plants are used in all sorts of ways. Plants are needed for humans to live. Uses for plants include food, clothing, shelter, fuel, luxury items, and medicine.

What do plants give out?

Plants produce oxygen during a process called photosynthesis. This process occurs when plants take in water and carbon dioxide and use sunlight to produce oxygen and glucose.

What plants are beneficial to humans?

Plants are beneficial to humans in many ways. Plants like rice, beans, corn, wheat, potatoes, and all fruits and vegetables are food sources. Plants that contain salicylic acid, such as wintergreen and willow, have been used to reduce inflammation.

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