Thursday, September 30, 2010

Plants At Risk: research catalogs potential extinction threat to one-fifth of all plants

There are several news agencies that are picking up on a recently released study that declares that one-fifth of the world's plants are faced with extinction. Animals or large-scale ecosystems seem to catch the attention of the general public more than plants, perhaps because we can relate to an animated polar bear, a wolf, or a shark better than we can to an orchid. And ecosystems catch our attention because their fate is often wrapped up in global implications.

However, plants, as much as they may be taken for granted or ignored altogether, play a significant role in not only the overall health of the planet but to mankind specifically.

Researchers at England's Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and the Natural History Museum, along with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have analyzed over 4,000 plant species and determined that 22% should be considered threatened with possible extinction, while another 33% could not have their status determined because so little is known about them. Their research forms an important baseline by which future growth or loss can be measured.

With an estimated 380,000 plant species in the world today, what appears to be the greatest threat is habitat loss - areas of land that are being consumed and redirected towards agriculture. Tropical rain forests seem to be the greatest botanical areas at risk.

Now what might assume that the loss of some obscure orchid or weed is not a big deal; that as long as we have plenty of fruits and vegetables, we will be okay. Not so, according to the research. Many medicines have been first derived or can only be derived from plant extracts, and with the loss of botanical environments that can be a loss of an untold number of future medications. Ironically, developing countries, where much of the tropical forests and plant systems are being wiped out, are one of the main benefactors in plant-derived medicines for conditions ranging from malaria to leukemia.

In addition, focusing on plants that serve the greatest numbers of people as food is a limitation that can have profound effects on the very plants we depend on. It is reported that 80% of the calories consumed by the world come from only 12 different plant species. That can cause a precarious limitation in the DNA gene pool of plants which can have a negative impact on those 12 species we so much depend on. Imagine ridding the world of all animals except for cows, pigs, chickens and a few fish and you can see how precarious our situation would become in maintaining a healthy gene pool of feed animals.

The report on the ongoing botanical research comes in advance of next month's United Nations Biodiversity Conference. The future of plants on earth must be an important component of a more holistic approach towards biodiversity, realizing that every plant or animal plays a role and we must consider the implications when any species, plant or animal, is brought to the level of extinction.

Stephen Hopper, professor and director of the the Royal Botanical Gardens said,
"We cannot sit back and watch plant species disappear - plants are the basis of all life on Earth, providing clean air, water, food and fuel. All animal and bird life depends on them and so do we. Every breath we take involves interacting with plants. They're what we all depend on."

Read more about it in the Royal Botanical Gardens' KEW News.

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