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ENVIRONMENT

'Race to save world's plants' as two in five species face extinction

Scientists warn 40 percent of the world's plants are at existential risk, with many fungi also threatened.
Scientists warn 40 percent of the world's plants are at existential risk, with many fungi also threatened. AFP/File

Two in five of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction – twice as many as previously thought – scientists warn.

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A report released Wednesday as world leaders address a UN summit on Biodiversity says the unprecedented loss of the natural world will have dire consequences for human health.

The work of 210 scientists in 42 countries was used to compile the latest State of the World's Plants and Fungi, by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Britain.

With 40 percent of plants at existential risk, and many fungi also threatened, researchers say they are in a “race against time” to find and save new species before they disappear.

Some 140,000 plants species are threatened, up from an earlier estimate of 21 percent from four years ago – with farming identified as the number one threat.

“We are living in an age of extinction,” said Kew director of science, Alexandre Antonelli. “Never before has the biosphere, the thin layer of life we call home, been under such intensive and urgent threat.”

Green opportunities

While only a handful of crops are used to feed a growing global population, the report found more than 7,000 edible plants had the potential to become future crops.

In addition, some 2,500 plants had the potential to become biofuel crops, providing energy for millions worldwide. 

Last year alone, more than 4,000 species of plants and fungi were discovered – including some that might be valuable as foods or medicines.

“Understanding which plants and fungi are threatened is vital to halting biodiversity loss and minimising future extensions, the report said. 

“New tools and approaches are helping us to improve how we set conservation priorities.”

The researchers want to see improved risk assessment techniques, including greater use of AI technology, and are calling for increased funding for plant conservation.

Nature pledge

On Monday, 64 world leaders pledged “broad” and “urgent” action to stop the destruction of the world’s biodiversity, which they described as a “planetary emergency”.

While 2020 was dubbed a “super year for nature”, the Covid-19 pandemic forced all major climate and biodiversity events – in Glasgow, China and Marseille – to be postponed until next year. 

Only the UN Summit on Biodiversity, being held in a virtual format, has been maintained.  

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