NUI Galway Contribute to State of the World Plant and Fungi 2020 Report

The only known wild species of Abutilon pitcairnense was wiped off Pitcairn Island after a landslide. Credit Marcella Corcoran
Oct 14 2020 Posted: 10:54 IST

New report shows nature-based solutions can address the triple threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security

Wednesday, 14 October, 2020: NUI Galway has contributed to the fourth State of the World report from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which takes a deep dive into the state of the world’s plant and fungal kingdoms globally. 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.

The new data, the result of a large international collaboration bringing together 210 scientists from 42 countries, shows how we are currently using plants and fungi, what useful properties we are missing, and what we risk losing.

The authors found that 1,942 plants and 1,886 fungi were named as new to science in 2019. Among these exciting discoveries are species that might be valuable as foods, drinks, medicines or fibres.

Kew’s 2016 State of the World’s Plants report estimated one in five plants were at risk but new analyses this year show that extinction risk may be much higher than previously thought, with 39.4% plants estimated to be threatened with extinction.

Accounting for under and over-represented plant groups and geographical areas enabled the scientists to estimate extinction risk more accurately. 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.

Professor Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at RBG Kew, says: “The data emerging from this year’s report paints 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.”

Dr Karen Bacon, a plant ecologist from Botany and Plant Science at NUI Galway looked at how the responses of plants to environmental upheaval today compares to that of plants millions of years ago during previous major climatic shifts and mass extinction events.

Dr Bacon contributed to the international study that reviewed qualitative and quantitative evidence to provide a critical overview of extinction risk estimates for plants and fungi and analysis revealed that approximately two in five plant species are at risk of extinction.

Biases in assessment mean that woody perennials (plants that live for more than two years) are over-represented and national endemics (plants only found in one geographic area/nation) are under-represented. For example, plants that are useful to people are more likely to have been assessed than plants that people think are at risk of extinction or threatened in some way. Species are also more likely to be assessed if they are in some geographic regions where it is easy to go to assess plants compared to other areas that are not easy to access.

Dr Karen Bacon, Lecturer in Plant Ecology, Botany and Plant Science, NUI Galway, said: “Plants and fungi are essential for life on Earth. The results of the study clearly show that many plants are at risk of extinction. Given that plants have been previously thought to be robust to extinction events when we consider the fossil record, this is concerning. However, by continuing to assess species and learning more about the risks that plants and fungi face, we can take action to help conserve both our species and our ecosystems.”

Dr Bacon added: “Our understanding of previous mass extinctions comes from the fossil record. Mass extinctions record spikes in extinction of species, particularly for animals. Today, both plant and animal extinction rates are higher than expected for non-mass extinction levels and are approaching a similar rate to those observed in the fossil record for previous periods of mass extinction.

“This is particularly concerning for plants because they are generally thought to be less likely than animals to experience such high extinction rates. Evidence for global trends in plants supports a pattern of ongoing decline, although clades (present unbroken lines of evolutionary descent) show considerable variation with extremes such as the highly threatened cycads and conifers.”

Managing risks to plants and fungi, requires updated extinction risk assessments for as many species as possible. Novel artificial intelligence approaches show potential to deliver extinction risk estimates for each species, given that formal assessments seem unlikely for all plants and impossible for fungi on the urgent timescale needed to address modern extinction risk.

Other report highlights found that:

Medicine – 723 of the plants we use for medicine is at risk of extinction
Food and fuel – new data shows we use a tiny fraction of existing species
Two in five plants threatened – extinction risk may be worse than previously thought
4000 newly named species – potential new foods, medicines and timber found in 2019
Race against time – pace of finding, naming and conserving species is too slow

The report shows that of the 5,411 medicinal plants that have been assessed for their conservation status (out of 25,791 documented medicinal plants), 723 (13%) are categorised as threatened. For fungi, only six medicinal species 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.

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. The report identified 7,039 plants listed as ‘human food’ from a Kew dataset of useful plants, of which only 417 (5.9%) are considered as major food crops.

Meanwhile, for the purpose of producing energy, there are 2,500 identified plants that could be used for fuel or bioenergy, but only six crops – maize, sugarcane, soybean, palm oil, rapeseed and wheat – generate 80% of global industrial biofuel.

This landmark report is the first time plants and fungi have been combined in one global State of the World’s assessment, with the underlying data also published in a series of 12 scientific research papers, made freely available in the leading journal Plants, People, Planet

To download a copy of the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi Report, please click here and read online here:

A three-day online symposium on the report findings will take place from 13-15 October. For more information and to register to attend, please click here.


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