Some two in five of the world’s plant species stand at risk of extinction because of climate and ecological chaos, a new report has revealed.
Experts are saying that species are being driven to extinction and those under threat provide an untapped “treasure chest” of food and medicine.
Some 210 scientists from 42 countries were involved in the study, led by the Royal Botanical Gardens, based in Kew, west London.
“We would not be able to survive without plants and fungi—all life depends on this—and it is really time to open the treasure chest,” said Professor Alexandre Antonelli, from Kew.
“Every time we lose a species, we lose an opportunity for humankind,” he said. “We are losing a race against time as we are probably losing species faster than we can find and name them.”
More than 4,000 species of plants and fungi were discovered in 2019, including two relatives of cassava—a staple food threatened by the unpredictable weather patterns caused by the climate crisis.
Billions of people rely on just a handful of crops every day, but rising temperatures, heavy rainfall and a dramatically changing climate threaten harvests.
Half the world’s population depend on rice, maize and wheat and just 15 plants provide 90 percent of all of our calorie intake.
Scientists are arguing that discovery of new plant species will help some of the world’s poorest communities stave off devastating famines.
Stefano Padulosi, a former senior scientist at the Alliance of Biodiversity International said, “The thousands of neglected plant species are the lifeline to millions of people on Earth tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity, and economic disempowerment.
“Harnessing this basket of untapped resources for making food production systems more diverse and resilient to change should be our moral duty,” he said.
Researchers based their assessment on data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
They used artificial intelligence and statistical modelling to determine the number of species at risk, even though the Red List wasn’t able to analyse all known species.
“We now have AI approaches that are up to 90 percent accurate,” said senior research leader Eimear Nic Lughadha.
“These are good enough to say, ‘this area has a lot of species that haven’t been assessed and are almost certainly threatened'.”
The combination of more precise scientific techniques and a deepening awareness of the climate crisis is producing ever-more devastating predictions.
Just four years ago, the State of Plants report said that one in five were threatened. But now the risk is judged to be much higher.
And scientists involved in the latest research said that halting the extinction of plants could provide opportunities to discover treatments for pandemics such as coronavirus.
“Only 7 percent of (known) plants have documented uses as medicines and therefore the world’s plants and fungi remain largely untapped as potential sources of new medicines,” said research leader Melanie-Jayne Howes.
“So it is absolutely critical that we better protect biodiversity so we are better prepared for emerging challenges to our planet and our health.”
The picture could not be clearer—protecting plant and fungi species from extinction driven by human activity has to be a central battle in the fight against climate catastrophe.