1 in 5 plants are going extinct, but here's the opportunity

Doria Gordon

Plants create the air that we breathe and food we eat. They’re also a key ingredient in many of our medicines, building materials, paper products and fabrics – and can even generate energy for cars and machines.

In fact, more than 31,000 plant species have a history of human use.

That’s why a recent report from Britain’s Kew Royal Botanical Gardens set off alarm bells. Its central message: Twenty percent of the world’s 391,000 vascular plant species – which don’t include plants such as mosses, fungi and algae – are in danger of extinction.

These are disturbing, though not surprising, statistics for a plant ecologist like myself. But the report also brought some unexpected good news: We’re discovering a large number of new plants all the time, 2,034 in 2015 alone. 

There are steps we can take to protect these potentially critical resources for future generations.

With incentives, people and plants can co-exist

Still-undiscovered plants may provide the next life-saving drugs or, perhaps, climate-resistant crops. 

The Taxol chemotherapy drug, for example, was discovered in a conifer found in the Pacific Northwest. The active ingredient in aspirin, salicin, was first discovered in willow bark.

The next such drugs may be just around the corner. To be able to find them, however, we must also conserve the areas where they live.

Market-driven programs, such as the habitat exchanges Environmental Defense Fund pioneered to give landowners financial rewards for preserving critical habitat for at-risk wildlife, may also include existing and not-yet-discovered plants at risk. The credits these landowners earn for participating in a habitat exchange offset the financial loss they may incur by protecting the land.

This is the kind of solution that, when scaled up, offers hope for plant protection both in the United States and overseas. But we’re in a race against time.

The findings in the Kew report also underscore the importance of using innovative market mechanisms to save tropical forests in the Amazon and beyond. Many of the valuable plant species that we continue to discover are found in tropical forests, 10 percent of which have been lost worldwide over the last 25 years, the report noted.

New discoveries bring new opportunities

Some of the 2,000-some new plants we find every year were discovered after a closer evaluation of plants that had already been collected, but not identified. Some are new discoveries in the field.

If we continue at this rate, we will have identified more than 150,000 new species by the end of this century, increasing the known number of plants by more than 40 percent. These new discoveries won’t offset the extinction trend, but they open up new opportunities.

Just in 2015, scientists found a new species of bean in Brazil, five new onion species in Eastern Europe and a new sweet potato in Bolivia. New relatives of crop species may give us products that are more resistant to disease and require less fertilizer – or that are more tolerant to changing growing conditions.

Such discoveries should give us strong motivation to ramp up protection of critical natural systems through careful and strategic development that benefits people as well as plants – and by setting aside the most vulnerable areas that must not be disturbed.

There is a whole world out there we have yet to explore. It gives me hope as I process the fact that 20 percent of existing plants are also going extinct.