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Two in five plant species are at risk of extinction

Analysis: a new report on the state of the world's plants has some sobering findings about what we're in danger of losing

Dr Eoin Lettice, School of BEES and the ERI

Originally published by RTE Brainstorm

We all know there is an intrinsic value to nature. Nature doesn’t need to provide humans with a product or service to be important and valuable in its own right. However, if nature’s innate value is not enough to save it (and us), then the importance of nature to society is worth shouting about.

Published today, The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 report from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is based on the expertise of 210 researchers in 97 institutions across 42 countries, including here at UCC. It represents a massive and unparalleled collaborative effort which aims to highlight the opportunities for plants and fungi to help solve some of the major global challenges we face. What makes our report even more valuable is that it draws on a full volume of peer-reviewed, freely available scientific publications in the journal Plants People Planet. These publications provide all of the reference material and background data on which this report has been based.

Although plants and fungi have their own innate value as the building blocks of life on planet Earth, they are also a ‘toolbox’ from which we can source potential solutions to global problems such as pandemics, climate change and food security. Unfortunately, this toolbox is being increasingly compromised by biodiversity loss. Tools are being lost. As a global society, we have turned our back on the potential of plants to address these issues and have become dependent on a small number of species for our food, beverages, medicines, and energy sources.

One of the most sobering findings of our report is that the number of plants at risk of extinction could well be much higher than previously thought. In the 2016 version of this report, it was estimated that one in five plants were at risk of extinction. New analyses published today suggest that the actual figure could be almost double that, with two in five plant species at risk.

If we view plants and other species as intrinsically valuable in their own right, this is a disappointing finding. However, if we also accept that these at-risk plants may represent un-tapped sources of life-saving medicines, the loss becomes more of a direct threat to human civilisation. According to today’s report, of the approximately 26,000 medicinal plants which have been documented only about one fifth have been assessed for their conservation status. Of those, 13% are threatened. The likelihood is, many more medicinal plants are also at risk.

New data, also published in this report, shows there are 7,039 edible plants which could potentially hold the key to reducing food insecurity. However, a quick look in your local supermarket or farmers market will confirm that 15 plants provide 90% of humanity’s food energy intake. Relying on such a small selection of the available edible crops has left us vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the effects of plant pests and diseases.

Novel food plants, along with the wild relatives of widely grown food crops, taken together with new genetic tools, will be central to feeding the planet’s rising population. Breeding genetic diversity that exists in wild relatives back into modern crop varieties will make them more robust in the face of a changing climate and ever-evolving pests and diseases. A combination of tools like ‘high throughput phenotyping’, where modern imaging technology can be used to automatically recognise desired traits; ‘traditional’ genetic modification (GM) technology; and the emerging field of gene editing will augment conventional plant breeding to produce the next generation of crop varieties.

However, much of this will be impossible if those wild relatives are lost to extinction before they can be utilised or even described by science. In that respect, today’s report offers some positive news. New plant and fungal species continue to be described and named. In 2019, 1,942 plants and 1,886 new species of fungi were recorded. Many of these may become valuable foods, drinks or medicines. For example, six new species of Allium (the group to which onions and garlic belong) were described. 10 new relatives of spinach were discovered in California; 30 previously unnamed species of Camellia (the group to which tea belongs) were described; and a new species of Artemisia was discovered in Tibet, which is a close relative of a species used to treat malaria.

The biologist Rachel Carson, in her seminal work Silent Spring (1962), made the case that humans had two options for the future. One road "on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster" and the other "our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth".

As world leaders meet this week at the UN Biodiversity Summit, it is heartening that so many have supported the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature that commits to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030. How successfully they meet this pledge will have massive ramifications for us all. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has emerged through human degradation of biodiversity. As we all plan ahead, we must have the protection of biodiversity for sustainable development at the centre of our new normal.