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Almost 40 per cent of plant and fungi species are at risk of disappearing

Thousands of plant and fungi species may be at of risk extinction even before being discovered by scientists, according to a report by Kew Gardens.

Thousands of plant and fungus species still haven’t been identified. As well as contributing to the equilibrium of the ecosystems they inhabit, they also hold great potential for human beings in providing food, medicines and materials. But the threats bearing on their survival are numerous, and so serious that many of them could be lost even before being studied by scientists. This is what emerges from the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi, a report by botanical research centre Kew Gardens based on the work of 210 experts from 97 research institutions in 42 countries.

The search for new species, a race against time

Scientists are constantly exploring ecosystems in search of species of plants and fungi that haven’t been catalogued officially. In 2019, 1,942 plants were added to the International Plant Namex Index while 1,886 new species entered the Fungorum Index. Among those described last year, for instance, in China and Southeast Asia there are thirty species of Camellia, from which tea is extracted (Camellia Sinesis) while its flowers can be used for ornamental purposes. In Turkey, new species of Allium have been identified, a genus that includes garlic, onion, leek and chives. In Brazil, new wild plants in the same family as sweet potatoes and cassava have also been discovered.

Cassava as a staple food
Cassava is a staple food for around 800 million people worldwide. The discovery of new species could therefore have great potential for food security © Annie Spratt/Unsplash

However, “current threats to global biodiversity, from climate change, logging and land-use change, make the task of cataloguing species a race against time. Often, by the time a new species has been described and named, it is facing extinction”, according to the report. The risk therefore is that species disappear before their potential can even be explored.

Plants and fungi at risk of extinction

To protect the planet’s natural capital, researchers explain, we need to define which species are most at risk, why they face extinction and where they’re located. This is the only way that protection measures can be appropriately targeted. The international standard against which to measure these efforts is the Red List of Threatened Species drawn up by the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Despite being the most complete of all biodiversity databases, it only includes 116,117 species of plants, fungi and animals. That is, approximately 6 per cent of the 2.1 million ones known to scientists. Fungi, in particular, are scarcely represented with only 285 species out of 148,000 listed. Not to mention all those that still haven’t been identified, amounting to around two million (excluding animals) estimates say.

Practically speaking, a few categories are underrepresented, such as tropical plants in Asia, while others are overrepresented, such as African plants, in the IUCN’s list. This is comparable to polling for elections, which almost never truly represents all voters, Kew Garden’s doctor Barnaby Walker explains. Using demographic data, however, researchers can correct these distortions, otherwise known as bias.

The same statistical models used for elections polls were applied to the Red List, and their outcome indicates that species in risk of extinction are 39.4 per cent of the total. Essentially, two out of five. An impressive estimate, and once again, a reminder of the urgency of biodiversity protection.

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