From the threatened extinction of nearly a quarter of the world’s plants, to the Facebook discovery of an unknown giant carnivorous specimen, the first-ever evaluation of the world’s flora is complete.
It’s staggering and somehow gratifying to find that every year around 2,000 new species of plants are discovered. But it’s troublesome and deeply worrying to learn that more than 10 percent of the world’s landcover type has changed in just 10 years, mostly from forest to farmland.
The State of the World’s Plants report took 80 scientists from the prestigious laboratories and archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in west London a year to complete.
It was unveiled by Kew’s director of science, Professor Kathy Willis.
“We’ve had no end of the state of the world reports on everything from sea turtles to antibiotics,” Willis said. “But never plants.
“And I find this remarkable because plants are fundamental to the lives we lead. They underpin almost everything we know – from food, to clothing, to regulating the climate. They make living possible.”
And when you factor in how climate change appears to be turning the natural world upside down, threatening crop production and fuelling fears of food insecurity, never has the time been more apposite for such an assessment.
“Someone had to take the lead and shove plants to the top of the agenda,” Willis said.
Throughout years of domestication, traits have been bred into crops to create, say, the perfect banana or coffee plant. But these traits will not necessarily protect them from the ravages of climate change.
So the Kew scientists say we need to go back to the wild relatives of the crops and tap that pool of genetic variation.
These relatives have evolved over thousands of years and have huge climate resilience, which could then be bred back into our crops.
The problem is many of those wild populations are under considerable threat, due to deforestation and change of land use.
“We need to become global landscape planners to really understand which of the most important areas to preserve because of the plant diversity they contain,” Willis said.
Kew has a botanical pedigree second to none. It was established in 1759 and now boasts more than eight million specimens, many dating back to Victorian times.