Study says 40% of plant species at risk of extinction

Fonio is high in iron calcium and several essential amino acids. Courtesy RBG Kew

Fonio is high in iron calcium and several essential amino acids. Courtesy RBG Kew

In 2016, a previous edition of this report had estimated that 21% of the world's plant species were threatened with extinction, and in 2020, it has nearly doubled to 39.4%. That puts the number of species at risk near 140,000.

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.

Previous research in 2016 showed that 20% of plant species were under threat, but the "State of the World's Plants and Fungi 2020" report, published Wednesday, draws on the work of 210 scientists from 42 countries to reveal the scale of the problem, using improved data and methodology. It shows how humans are now using plants and fungi, what useful properties we are missing, and what we risk losing.

The Museum's Prof Juliet Brodie provided a specialist focus on seaweeds for the report.

The wider report highlights the pressing need to explore the solutions that plants and fungi could provide to address some of the pressures facing people and planet. Every time we lose a species, we lose an opportunity for humankind.

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'Societies have been too dependent on too few species for too long.

"We are living in an age of extinction", said Kew director of science, Alexandre Antonelli.

A report released Wednesday as world leaders address a United Nations summit on Biodiversity says the unprecedented loss of the natural world will have dire consequences for human health.

"Plants and fungi meet our everyday needs already in terms of food, energy, medicine, but there's real potential to tap this treasure chest even further to address our most urgent questions - we need more food, we need better, cleaner energy and this is what the report addresses".

"We really have to grasp the problem", he said, underlining that worldwide cooperation will be key to reducing the threat and harnessing all that plants and fungi can do to help humanity.

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We rely on plants to cure a huge range of ailments. Some 5,411 medicinal plants were assessed in the study, and 723 are threatened.

Half the world's population depend on rice, maize and wheat and just 15 plants provide 90 percent of all of our calorie intake.

Of the more-than 7,000 plants categorised as "human food", researchers said 417 can be considered major food crops. Artificial intelligence could help to identify priorities for conservation assessments.

"The [AI] techniques are good enough to say, "this area has a lot of species that haven't been assessed but are nearly certainly threatened", she said.

The report has also identified the need to accelerate the pace of species identification. "We are losing a race against time as we are probably losing species faster than we can find and name them". We can not protect a species if we do not know it exists, and this makes finding, describing, and naming species a critical task.

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