A report suggests that biodiversity loss is greater than previous estimates and that a significant number of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction.
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew has published findings on a deep dive into the state of the world’s plant and fungal kingdoms globally. Its authors have raised alarm at the discovery that the extinction risk of plants may be much higher than previously thought.
Estimates now suggest 39.4pc of plants are under serious threat of extinction, equating to two out of every five plants. This is almost double the 21pc of global plant species estimated to be threatened with extinction in 2016.
Data for the report was compiled by 210 scientists from 42 countries, including University College Cork plant scientist Dr Eoin Lettice and Kew’s Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha.
Suggesting the best course of action, the authors called on the ramping up of risk assessments so key areas can be protected, and species can be conserved as soon as possible. This, they said, could be achieved using AI to detect if an area contains multiple species that haven’t been assessed, but are more likely to be threatened.
According to Nic Lughadha, who was lead author on one of the report’s chapters, AI approaches to conservation so far have shown themselves to be up to 90pc accurate.
“The [AI] techniques are good enough to say, ‘this area has a lot of species that haven’t been assessed but are almost certainly threatened’,” she said. “And knowing that will enable us to identify the most important areas to conserve in the immediate future.”
Not all bad news
A more positive finding of the report showed that there are a total of 7,039 edible plants, some of which could potentially be used as greater food sources. Today, just 15 plants provide 90pc of humanity’s food energy, according to the report, with 4bn people reliant on rice, maize and wheat alone.
Of the more-than 7,000 plants categorised as ‘human food’, researchers said 417 can be considered major food crops. These included the drought-tolerant South African legume – the seeds of which can be roasted to produce a taste similar to cashew nuts and can be boiled or ground to a powder to make porridge.
The report also found that there are 2,500 types of plants that could be used for fuel or bioenergy, of which only six are currently used to produce 80pc of global industrial biofuel.
While highlighting the potential environmental damage caused by excessive harvesting of biofuels, the authors suggested increasing efforts to find local biofuel species in low-income countries and encouraging diversity in agriculture.
Commenting on the report, Lettice said: “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.”
Updated 10.40am, 1 October 2020: A previous version of this article stated that Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha was lead author of the report. This was updated to clarify that she was lead author of one of the chapters within the report.