1 in 5 Plants Threatened With Extinction

Plants are incredibly important to the health of our planet, so it is troubling to hear that 1 in 5 plant species faces risk of extinction.

That is according to a new report which is apparently the first global assessment of plant life. Should we lose this important percentage of plant diversity, there could be serious consequences for our plant uses, writes Eva Botkin-Kowcki for Christian Science Monitor.

Scientists emphasize the importance of plants

“Plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind,” said Kathy Willis, science director at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, who led the new report. “Plants provide us with everything – food, fuel, medicines, timber and they are incredibly important for our climate regulation. Without plants we would not be here. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.”

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One piece of good news is that deforestation has slowed around the world since the 1950s. Brazil and China are two countries that have seen a significant slowing in the rate of deforestation, but the report shows that there is plenty more work to be done.

The report is called “State of the World’s Plants,” and suggests that 390,900 species of plant are currently known to science. That number does not include algae or moss, although it does account for when scientists have described the same species by different names.

According to the researchers, around 21% of those species are threatened with extinction.

Human use could be affected

“The positive is we’re still discovering lots of new plants, about 2,000 each year, new plants for food, for fuel, for drugs,” Dr. Willis told the Associated Press. “On the negative, we’ve seen a huge change in land cover, mainly driven by cultural activity, with a little bit of climate change in there as well.”

As is the case with many environmental issues, humans have an important impact on plant extinction risk. As people cut down trees to make more space for agriculture, towns and cities, we are provoking the loss of biodiversity.

“If we completely clear the land and have a type of monoculture what happens when a new plant disease emerges and wipes out the crop entirely?” Steve Bachman, a species conservation researcher at RBG, said to Reuters.

Climate change also has a role to play

The effects of deforestation are made worse by the impact of climate change. Sensitive plants are affected by changes and there are numerous indirect impacts such as changes in pollinators.

The extinction of plant species could have terrible effects on the Earth. Trees and plants act to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, and are known as the lungs of our planet. Any reduction in the number of plants means that we lose some of our carbon sink.

Losing plant diversity could also affect the way we live our lives. As humans we currently use at least 31,128 plants. We could see changes to our direct food supply as well as our food web if plant diversity falls. If animals that eat a certain kind of plant lose their food source, this could affect animals higher up the food chain.

“I am reasonably optimistic,” Willis told The Guardian. “Once you know [about a problem], you can do something about it. The biggest problem is not knowing.”

Researchers say that it is important that we catalogue plant diversity and identify new species.

“If this plant doesn’t have a name, and it falls over in the forest, no one knows,” Timothy M.A. Utteridge, head of identification and naming at the Royal Botanical Gardens, told the Associated Press. “Once we have a specimen, and a name, we put that on the map.”