Two fifths of global plants and fungi species are at risk of extinction as humans encroach on the natural world, states a new international report from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The grim assessment states that scientists are in a race against time to discover, identify and rescue plant and fungi species before we lose many of them forever, with the number of susceptible species currently near 140,000.
The report is entitled State of the World’s Plant and Fungi 2020 and, along with an accompanying short video, is a collaboration between 210 scientists across 42 countries, analysing the health of thousands of species. Its authors examine how humans are interacting with and utilising plants and fungi, and what potential opportunities are being missed. The researchers suggest that action is desperately needed to accelerate risk assessments using technologies such as artificial intelligence, in order for key conservation areas and species to be protected.
The report notes that the biosphere has never been under such intensive and urgent threat as it is now. Deforestation rates have soared due to clearing land to feed growing populations, global emissions are disrupting the climate system, new pathogens are threatening crops and human health, illegal trade has eradicated entire plant populations, and non-native species are outcompeting local floras – biodiversity is disappearing locally, regionally and globally.
Presently, people globally are only utilising a small portion of plants. However, many known and as of yet unknown species have potential applications crucial to sustaining life, including future fuel, food and medicine. Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Kew explains,
“Societies have been too dependent on too few species for too long. At a time of rapid biodiversity loss, we are failing to access the treasure chest of incredible diversity on offer and missing a huge opportunity for our generation.”
2,500 plants were identified as being sources of fuel or bioenergy, yet just six crops – maize, sugarcane, soybean, palm oil, rapeseed and wheat – generate 80% of global industrial biofuel. Similarly, more than 7,000 edible plants have the capacity to be used as future foods, but only 15 plants provide 90% of humanity’s food energy intake, with four billion people depending entirely on rice, maize and wheat.
Among the potential food sources identified is a drought-tolerant species of pandan that grows in coastal lowlands from Hawaii to the Philippines and yields a pineapple-like fruit that can be consumed either cooked or raw as well as edible leaves. This is just one example of what Stefano Padulosi, co-author of the report’s food chapter, describes as “the thousands of under-utilised and neglected plant species” which could offer “the lifeline to millions of people on Earth tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity, and economic disempowerment”.
The research also found that 723 medicinal plants are at risk of going of extinct, with over-harvesting in some parts of the world being a great concern. Four billion people depend on herbal medicines as their principle form of healthcare, with China and South Africa among the top consumers. Threatened medicinal species include Brugmansia sanguinea, traditionally used to treat circulatory disorders, which has been listed as ‘extinct in the wild’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Other examples are Nepenthes khasiana, typically applied for skin diseases, and the black pepper bark tree Warburgia salutaris, used for coughs and colds.
The report’s authors hope that scientific advances will aid the discovery of new nature-derived medicines and offer an incentive to conserve biodiversity. 1,942 plants and 1,886 fungi were named as new to science in 2019 according to the report, with exciting discoveries including six new species of Allium, the genus to which garlic, onions, leeks and chives belong; a new tree in the mahogany family which offers a potential new source of timber; and three new species from the genus Oenothera, also known as evening primrose – other plants in this family produce gamma linoleic acids used to treat sclerosis, eczema and psoriasis.
Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Kew, says:
“As we start the most critical decade our planet has ever faced, we hope this report will give the public, businesses and policymakers the facts they need to demand nature-based solutions that can address the triple threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security.”