Two in five of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction as a result of the destruction of the natural world, according to an international report.
Plants and fungi underpin life on Earth, but the scientists said they were now in a race against time to find and identify species before they were lost.
These unknown species, and many already recorded, were an untapped “treasure chest” of food, medicines and biofuels that could tackle many of humanity’s greatest challenges, they said, potentially including treatments for coronavirus and other pandemic microbes.
“We would be able not survive without plants and fungi – all life depends on them – and it is really time to open the treasure chest,” said Prof Alexandre Antonelli, the director of science at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the UK. RBG Kew led the report, which involved 210 scientists from 42 countries.
The 2016 State of Plants report found one in five were threatened, but the new analysis reveals the real risk to be much higher. The main cause of plant losses is the destruction of wild habitat to create farmland. Overharvesting of wild plants, building, invasive species, pollution and, increasingly, the climate crisis are also important causes of losses.
Billions of people rely on herbal medicines as their primary source of healthcare, but the report found that 723 species used as treatments are threatened with extinction.
The report also highlighted the very small number of plant species that humanity depends on for food. This makes supplies vulnerable to changes in climate and new diseases, especially with the world’s population expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050. Half the world’s people depend on rice, maize and wheat and just 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 secure our food system,” said Tiziana Ulian, a senior research leader at RBG Kew.
These species are all nutritious, robust, at low risk of extinction, and have a history of being used as local foods, but just 6% are grown at significant scale.
Read full article 40% of world’s plant species at risk of extinction at theguardian.com