Two-fifths of world’s plants under threat, with climate change a factor

Two-fifths of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction, with scientists in a race against time to find and save new species before they vanish, a report warns.

Wednesday, 30th September 2020, 7:00 am
Experts said species of plants and fungi are probably disappearing faster than botanists can find and name them
Experts said species of plants and fungi are probably disappearing faster than botanists can find and name them

At the same time, people are failing to access the many benefits plants and fungi could provide, such as new medicines, energy crops or food that is resilient to climate change, the report from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said.

The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 study, by 210 scientists from 42 countries, examines how people are using plants and fungi, what opportunities are being missed and what is at risk of being lost.

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Professor Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at RBG Kew, said the estimate of two-fifths of species threatened with extinction was “a very worrying picture of risk and urgent need for action. We are also losing the race against time, species are probably disappearing faster than we can find and name and many of them could hold important clues for solving many of the pressing challenges of medicine and perhaps even some of the emerging or current pandemics.”

Analysis shows an estimated 140,000, or 39.4 per cent, of vascular plants are threatened with extinction – much higher than Kew’s 2016 report which put the figure at 21 per cent.

The experts said the increase was down to more sophisticated conservation assessments and new approaches to account for plants and 
areas that were over or under-represented in previous analysis.

The biggest threat is the clearance of natural habitats such as rainforest for agriculture, but climate change is catching up and threatening species with rising temperatures and extremes such as drought, the experts said.

Among those threatened with extinction are 723 species used for medicines, including plants used to treat circulatory disorders, skin diseases and coughs and colds, with overharvesting a problem in some parts of the world.

Scientists are identifying new species each year, with 1,942 plants and 1,886 fungi scientifically named for the first time in 2019, including new potential food plants and medicines.

But they warn that more funding and research is needed to speed up the identification, naming and conservation of species before they go extinct.

Discoveries include new plants related to species that treat inflammation and malaria, as well as wild relatives of spinach, cassava and sweet potato, and eight new species of fungi related to the edible “old man of the woods” mushroom.

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