Two out of five plant species in the world are at risk of extinction as a result of the destruction of the natural world, according to an international report.
Plants and fungi are the basis of life on Earth, but scientists say they are now in a race to find and identify species before they are lost.
These unknown species, and many of them, have already been an unused “treasure trove”
More than 4,000 species of plants and fungi were discovered in 2019. They include six species Alium in Europe and China, the same group as onions and garlic, 10 relatives of spinach in California and two wild relatives of cassava, which could help future major crops eaten by 800 million people against the climate crisis.
New medicinal plants include a type of sea bass in Texas whose relatives can treat inflammation, a type of antimalarial Garden brush in Tibet and three varieties of evening primrose.
“We can’t survive without plants and fungi – all life depends on them – and it’s really time to open the treasure chest,” said Prof. Alexander Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK. . RBG Kew is leading the report, which involves 210 scientists from 42 countries.
“Every time we lose a species, we lose an opportunity for humanity,” Antonelli said. “We’re losing a race against time because we’re probably losing species faster than we can find and name them.”
The UN revealed last week that world governments have not achieved a single goal of limiting biodiversity loss in the last decade.
Researchers base their assessment of the share of endangered species on the International Union for Conservation’s Red List. But only a fraction of the 350,000 known plant species have been estimated, so scientists have used statistical techniques to adjust to bias in the data, such as the lack of fieldwork in some regions.
They also used artificial intelligence to evaluate little-known areas. “We now have artificial intelligence approaches that are up to 90% accurate,” said Aymer Nick Lugada, senior research manager at RBG Kew. “They are good enough to say, ‘There are many species in this area that are not valued, but are almost certainly endangered.'”
In 2019, Nic Lughadha reported that 571 species had been extinct since 1750, although the true number was probably much higher.
The 2016 plant condition report found that one in five is at risk, but the new analysis reveals a real risk of being much higher. The main reason for plant losses is the destruction of wild habitats to create agricultural land. Excessive collection of wild plants, construction, invasive species, pollution and, increasingly, the climate crisis are also important causes of losses.
Billions of people rely on herbal medicines as a major source of health care, but the report finds that 723 species used as treatments are threatened with extinction. These include a species of red angel tube in South America used for circulatory disorders, which is now extinct in the wild, and an Indian pitcher plant traditionally used for skin diseases.
“Only 7% of [known] plants have documented their use as medicines, and therefore plants and fungi around the world remain largely untapped as potential sources of new medicines, ”said Melanie-Jane House, head of research at RBG Kew. “That is why it is absolutely important to better protect biodiversity in order to be better prepared for the challenges facing our planet and our health.”
Prof. Monique Simmons, who studies the uses of plants and fungi at RBG Kew, said that nature is a key place to seek treatments for coronaviruses and other diseases with pandemic potential: “I am quite sure that some of the leading results for the next generation Medicines in this area will come from plants and fungi. “
The report also highlighted the very small number of plant species on which humanity depends for food. This makes supplies vulnerable to climate change and new diseases, especially as the world’s population is expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050. Half of the world’s people depend on rice, corn and wheat, and only 15 plants provide 90% of all calories.
“The good news is that we have over 7,000 edible plant species that we could use in the future to really provide our food system,” said Tiziana Ulian, senior research director at RBG Kew.
All of these species are nutritious, healthy, low risk of extinction and have been used as local foods in the past, but only 6% are grown on a significant scale.
Potential future foods include morama beans, a drought-resistant South African legume that tastes like cashew nuts when roasted, and a type of pandan fruit that grows from Hawaii to the Philippines.
Stefano Padulosi, a former senior scientist at the Alliance for Biological Diversity, said: “The thousands of neglected plant species are the lifeline for millions of people on Earth plagued by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity and [poverty].
“Using this basket of untapped resources to make food production systems more diverse and resilient must be our moral duty.”
The report also found that current levels of beekeeping in cities such as London threaten wild bees, as there is not enough nectar and pollen to support the number of hives, and honey bees outnumber wild bees.