Published on October 5th, 2020 |
by Carolyn Fortuna
October 5th, 2020 by Carolyn Fortuna
Never before has the biosphere — the thin layer of life we call home — been under such intensive and urgent threat. That’s according to a new report from the UK’s Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Plants at risk of extinction have never been more profound, nor has the scientific world been more ready to conduct the research necessary to identify and save the world’s biodiversity.
The report tackles the knowledge gaps and unlocks the known and potential benefits of fungi and plants for humans and our planet. Drawing upon the expertise of 210 researchers in 97 institutions across 42 countries, this collaborative effort, funded by the Sfumato Foundation, aims to tell the world where humans might find solutions to the challenges that fungi and plant face.
This CleanTechnica article gives an overview of the report’s major points, in which the authors conclude that, although there is no single or easy way out of the environmental crisis, the relevance of plant and fungal science cannot be understated.
Seeking Out Plants At Risk of Extinction Before They Disappear
Often, by the time a new species has been described and named, it is facing extinction. This means species that might be valuable as foods, medicines, or fibers – or that play important roles in ecosystems, such as by helping to circulate nutrients – are disappearing before scientists or botanists even had a chance to explore their characteristics.
“People often think that every species has been located and classified but it’s not the case,” says Dr Martin Cheek, Senior Research Leader on the Africa and Madagascar team at Kew. “There are still vast numbers of species on this planet that we know nothing about and don’t even have names for. Once we have identified a species, the next step is to find out what its potential uses are, and whether it’s a priority for conservation.”
In 2019, botanists registered 1,942 newly named species of vascular plants on the International Plant Names Index (mainly flowering plants, ferns, and gymnosperms). And mycologists recorded 1,886 novel fungi on their equivalent index.
Yet current threats to global biodiversity from climate change, logging, and land-use change make the task of cataloging species a race against time. Because it’s impossible to assess how threatened a species is scientists know it exists, this makes locating, describing, and naming species a critical task if we are to conserve plants and fungi for future generations.
Calculating Extinction Risk For Plants & Fungi
Scientists are exploring the concept of “extinction debt.” A direct relationship exists between the size of an ecosystem and the number of species it contains: the species–area relationship. This dictates that when an ecosystem such as a forest or wetland shrinks, species loss follows. However, the reported 600 modern plant extinctions are far fewer than would be expected from observed habitat loss.
This is because extinctions are delayed. After habitat is lost, the area continues to support a similar number of species until the surplus – the extinction debt – is lost through a process of relaxation and a new equilibrium established matching the species–area relationship.
“Imagine a sudden disaster destroying 90% of a forest,” says Prof. John Halley, Professor of Ecology at Greece’s University of Ioannina, who was part of the Kew-led research team. “While some plants will go locally extinct immediately, most species will still occur in the 10% that remains. However, the reduced area means that some, especially species that were rare anyway, will now be permanently exposed to dangerously low population levels. So, a proportion of the plants we can see growing now, and which we may think are fine, are in fact in a game of Russian roulette against the environment to get from one generation to the next. Extinction is postponed but not avoided.”
New Genetic Tools Help Us To Benefit More From Plants & Fungi
By 2050, there will be 2 billion more people on the planet than there are now. As cities swell to accommodate them and climate change affects weather patterns, the amount of land and water available to grow crops and raise livestock will shrink. So, we will have to feed more people and develop new renewable bioproducts, while reducing pressure on and revitalizing the degraded ecosystems that are our planetary life-support system.
The question is, how?
One way is to employ genetic tools and techniques developed in recent years to make plants and fungi more useful to us. However, many modern crops have low genetic diversity. This is the result of continuous selection and breeding that has taken place over thousands of years.
Another challenge is that traditional crop breeding takes time. A breeder wanting to make an existing variety resistant to a particular disease must cross non-resistant and resistant plants, grow the offspring to maturity, infect them with the pathogen and test the response.
Accelerating this process is critical, given the speed at which we must step up global food production. Fortunately, innovative approaches that exploit low-cost techniques for DNA sequencing, new molecular modification tools and advances in imaging technology are increasing the precision with which new plant and fungal varieties can be developed, as well as reducing the time required to get them to market.
Finding New Edible Plants to Feed the World
When it comes to feeding our future population, the world is in a precarious position. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), just 15 crop plants contribute to 90% of humanity’s energy intake, and more than 4 billion people rely on just rice, maize, and wheat. Millions of people around the world suffer from hunger or obesity because they lack a balanced, nutritious diet, and this figure will likely rise as the global population expands to an estimated 10 billion by 2050.
Meanwhile, climate change is threatening to unleash weather conditions, pests, and diseases that our current crops will struggle to cope with. If humanity is to thrive in future, we need to make our food production systems more diverse, resilient, and environmentally sustainable. One option for doing this is to identify future nutritious crops that are better equipped to deal with the less predictable weather conditions to come. However, to do so, we first need to know more about what edible plants exist, where they grow, and what environmental conditions they favor, tolerate or are vulnerable to.
“The conservation and sustainable use of the widest diversity of crops and varieties is intrinsically linked to sustainable agriculture and food systems,” says Dr Rémi Nono Womdim, Deputy Director of the Plant Production and Protection Division at the FAO, who contributed to the Kew research. “We wanted to address these vital issues and highlight the importance of using a broader diversity of crops to ensure a resilient, sustainable, and nutritionally rich agricultural future.”
Final Thoughts On Plants At Risk of Extinction
There’s so much in this report! If you’re interested in learning more about the reciprocity between plants, fungi, and human life, you definitely should click through and dig deeply into this report.
In the meantime, because the search for new plants and fungi for energy is especially important to our CleanTechnica audience, we’ll be devoting a subsequent article strictly to that topic within the Kew report.
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