Two in five plant species on the planet are at risk of extinction but thousands of species new to science have been identified, including some that might be valuable as foods or medicines, a major new global report has found.
University College Cork plant scientist, Dr Eoin Lettice, is among the co-authors of the report published today by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, on the state of the world’s plant and fungal kingdoms.
It involved some 210 scientists from 42 countries looking at how we are currently using plants and fungi, what useful properties we are missing and what we risk losing.
“We live in a time of unprecedented biodiversity loss,” Dr Lettice said.
“Our report sheds light on the extinction risk of plants and fungi globally, with two in five plants now at risk of being wiped out.
“Given the importance of plants to society – they give us medicines, food, beverages, clothes, energy, and more – it’s never been more important that we identify, record and protect species wherever we find them and that we do that quickly, before it’s too late”.
While plants and fungi have the potential to solve urgent problems that threaten human life, the report says they are being compromised by biodiversity loss.
The report highlights the pressing need to explore the solutions that plants and fungi could provide to address some of the pressures facing people and the planet, including the triple threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security.
It also highlights how using plants and fungi could be used sustainably to supply food to the world’s growing human population.
“Just 15 plants provide 90% of humanity’s food energy intake," Dr Lettice said.
"Our report shows that there are at least 7,039 edible plant species known to science. These novel crops could hold the key to feeding a growing global population."
The report does have some good news, and reveals that 1,942 plant species and 1,886 fungal species were named last year as new to science, including:
- - six new species of Allium, the plant group to which garlic, onions, leeks and chives belong;
- - ten previously undescribed relatives of spinach, identified in California;
- - 30 previously unnamed species of Camellia, the group to which tea belongs, which were found in China and mainland South-East Asia;
- - a new species of Artemisia, closely related to a plant species that is used to treat malaria, has been found in Tibet;
- - and three new species related to evening primrose, a group of plants which produces gamma linoleic acids used to treat sclerosis, eczema and psoriasis.
The report also highlights the importance of crop wild relatives (CWR) - plants that are related to cultivated crops which could be used to introduce important traits like disease resistance into commonly grown crops, using a mix of traditional plant breeding and novel biotechnological approaches like genetic modification and gene-editing.
“Commercial crops like potato, wheat and rice have been bred to produce high yields and in that regard they have been successful,” Dr Lettice said.
“Unfortunately, they have not always been bred to possess traits like resistance to new pests and diseases or the capacity to thrive under changing climatic conditions.
“We need to look back at the ‘family tree’ of these crops to see if there are wild relatives with useful characteristics that can now make our modern crops more adaptable.”