Two in five of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction as a result of destruction of nature, according to the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens report on State of the World’s Plants and Fungi.
This is the fourth report in Kew’s State of the World’s series, which focused on plants in 2016 and 2017, and fungi in 2018. The survey was conducted by over 200 researchers from 42 countries. The scientists used Artificial Intelligence to identify plants and fungi as only a small percentage of known plant and fungi species have been assessed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List criteria.
“New species are still being scientifically named and described each year, but, at the same time, others are moving towards extinction – losing the battle against the threats they face. A detailed understanding of these two sides of the coin is critical to conserving plants and fungi, along with the useful characteristics they hold,” said Royal Botanic Gardens Director of Science Alexandre Antonelli.
In the report, the scientists say that the world’s plants and fungi can only be protected if there was a clear understanding about the threats they face and whether they are at risk of extinction. This involves assessing the conservation status of species, including identifying biases and gaps in our knowledge, they added. “It’s important to have a clear idea of which plants and fungi are at risk where, because that information should inform every new development and every conservation action,” says Dr Eimea Nic Lughadha, Senior Research Leader in the Conservation Science department at Kew.
The report also focused on the potential for future food and medicine sources that are yet to be utilised. They said that ten relatives of the spinach plant and six relatives of garlic and onion were discovered last year. “Humans currently depend on a very limited range of plant species for global food production (415 major food crops out of at least 7,039 edible plants), putting diets at risk of climate and disease impacts.” They said in the report.
With respect to listing on Red List, the report said that plants from tropical Asia are underrepresented on the Red List, while those from Africa are over-represented. Some of the most species-rich families are among the most under-represented, including the daisy, orchid, grass and mint families (Asteraceae, Orchidaceae, Poaceae and Lamiaceae, respectively). Together, these comprise almost a quarter of all vascular plants. It also said that the Red List also over-represented families targeted by assessment programmes, such as the cactus family (Cactaceae) and the myrtle family (Myrtaceae).
Despite being used in foods, drinks and medicines for at least 6,000 years, the enhancement of fungal species for humans has lagged behind that of plants, the report said. It said that the targeted breeding of fungi for food only took off in the 1980s, when one of the first hybrid strains of the widely cultivated edible mushroom Agaricus bisporus was developed. Since then, scientists have produced many fungal hybrids, including those that are being tested for their ability to make new forms of beer and biofuels
However, the report points out that only interaction specific to particular combinations of species have been discovered. As such further exploration was needed to unlock the full potential of this approach, it said.
The report says that nature provides a much larger store cupboard of species than is currently used. It also said that genetic technology played a vital role as the world faced major challenge of feeding more people with less land and water resources.
The report also notes “we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to utilising fungi. Applying our expanding knowledge of genetics to these natural resources to develop new foods, medicines and other products is our best hope of supporting both people and planet in the future.” It added.