A person sitting peacefully under a huge ash tree.

Ash trees in the UK are especially vulnerable to infection. Image: Jean-Pol Grandmont, via Wiki Commons, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

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40% of plants are threatened with extinction

The extinction risk to plants could be worse than previously thought, according to a landmark report.

The State of the World's Plants and Fungi report from Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) Kew estimated that 39.4% of plants are now threatened with extinction. It's a jump from one in five plants thought to be at risk in Kew's 2016 report.

Researchers say the planet may be losing plant species more quickly than science can find, name and study them, which could have big consequences in the search for food crops that are resilient in the face of climate change and new medicines.

Kew's work is an in-depth look into how plants and fungi are doing all over the world and is the result of a huge international collaboration bringing together 210 scientists from 42 countries. It shows how humans are currently 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. She describes seaweeds as the 'Cinderella subject of the sea' due to their essential role in underwater ecosystems, yet the lack of protection we give them impacts our chances of fully understanding them.

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. Plants and fungi are the building blocks of life on planet Earth, they have the potential to solve urgent problems that threaten human life, but these vital resources are being compromised by biodiversity loss.

Juliet says, 'Seaweed is fundamental to shallow water ecosystems. For example, kelp forests provide habitats for a huge array of marine organisms, they protect our coasts from erosion and help promote species diversity.

'Yet, like so many species in this new report, we have exposed how little we know about these irreplaceable organisms.  As we continue to exploit our coastal ecosystems, seaweeds face a race against time for us to understand and protect them before it's too late.'

Green, wet algae on a coastal rock

Algae grew on Earth long before the dinosaurs first appeared - but climate change could bring an end to their long tenure

The increase in plants thought to be at risk is due to more sophisticated conservation assessments and better ways of studying biodiversity. The new approach used by scientists this year predicted the overall proportion of threatened species to be 39.4%, almost double the 21% of global plant species estimated to be threatened with extinction in 2016.

Lots of those are plants that are regularly used in medicines which save the lives of millions of people every year.

Prof Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at RBG Kew, says, 'The data emerging from this year's report paint a picture of a world that has turned its back on the potential of plants and fungi to address fundamental global issues such as food security and climate change.

'Societies have been too dependent on too few species for too long. At a time of rapid biodiversity loss, we are failing to access the treasure chest of incredible diversity on offer and missing a huge opportunity for our generation.

'As we start the most critical decade our planet has ever faced, we hope this report will give the public, businesses and policymakers the facts they need to demand nature-based solutions that can address the triple threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security.'

A wheat sheaf

Just a handful of plants, like the wheat shown here, provide 90% of humanity's food intake. It leaves us vulnerable if one of those crops is threatened by disease or climate change

Plants matter

Plants give us medicine, food, energy, building materials and clean air. They provide the building blocks of life on our planet: without them, humans would not survive.

We rely on plants to cure a huge range of ailments. They have inspired thousands of synthetic medicines over the last few decades, which are now used as frontline treatments for deadly illnesses including cancer and heart disease, as well as being used in their own right to treat everything from skin conditions to diarrhea.

The global demand for naturally derived medicines is threatening some species. Of the 5,411 medicinal plants that have been assessed, 13% were found to be threatened. Six medicinal species of fungi have been assessed, one of which, eburiko (Fomitopsis officinalis), a wood-inhabiting parasitic fungus with antimicrobial properties, has already been pushed to the brink of extinction.

It is believed that a rise in the demand for herbal medicines is driven by numerous factors including an increase in prevalence of certain chronic diseases, and the search for new therapies. Worldwide, as many as four billion people rely on herbal medicines as their primary source of healthcare.

Likewise, we rely on a tiny fraction of plants and fungi for our food and energy, despite the thousands of species out there that have the potential to feed and fuel millions around the world.

New data show there are 7,039 edible plants which hold potential as future foods, yet just 15 plants provide 90% of humanity's food energy intake, and four billion people rely entirely on three crops: rice, maize and wheat. Relying on a handful of crops to feed the global population has contributed to malnutrition and left us vulnerable to climate change.

Kew scientists and collaborators researched which overlooked and underutilised plants could hold the key to future-proofing our food production systems. They identified 7,039 plants listed as human food from a dataset of useful plants, of which only 417 (5.9%) are considered as major food crops.

How to save our life support system    

The authors suggest the best course of action now is to fast track risk assessments so key areas can be protected, and species can be conserved without delay. Artificial intelligence could help to identify priorities for conservation assessments. This new technology can detect if an area contains multiple species that haven't been assessed, but are more likely to be threatened, which will help speed up assessments for areas in most urgent need.

The report has also identified the need to accelerate the pace of species identification. It is a race against time to find, identify, name and conserve species before they go extinct. We cannot protect a species if we do not know it exists, and this makes finding, describing, and naming species a critical task.

The Museum has been responding to this challenge since 2014 when it initiated the Digital Collections Programme to digitise and release data about the 80 million items in their collection. The ongoing programme aims to make it possible for anyone to access this data – without the need to physically be in the Museum.

Helen Hardy, who manages the Museum's Digital Collections says, 'Natural history collections hold information we need to tackle fundamental scientific and societal challenges of our time - from conserving the biodiversity on which our wellbeing and our planet's health depend to finding new ways  to combat disease and extract mineral resources.

'At present this information is contained within hundreds of millions of specimens, labels and archives across the globe, yet only available to a handful of scientists. At the Natural History Museum we want to unlock this treasure trove so that everyone, including citizen scientists, researchers and data analysts, can access it.'