Conservation: Mankind must turn over a new leaf

The mission to catalogue threats to our natural world produced more gloomy news last week: that more than one in five plants is at risk of extinction. Probably more.

The Sample Red List of plants will be added to a database being built by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which has already found that more than one in four amphibians, one in five mammals and one in eight birds face the same problem. The plants result, though, is potentially more worrying, especially for the likely fate of millions of other species, mostly insects, which have not yet been assessed. As a result, it will be presented to world leaders this month at Nagoya in Japan, to spur them to start saving the planet from what experts call the sixth great extinction.

Firstly, unlike bigger animals, hundreds of new plants are still being “discovered” by scientists each year — in 2009, 2 000 names were added to a list of about 380 000 to 400 000 species. Inevitably they tend to be more isolated, in smaller numbers and small areas — making them much more likely to be classified by the IUCN as “critically endangered”, “endangered” or “vulnerable”.

“We expect if we had a full assessment the threat would be at least this high, and likely higher,” said Eimear Nic Lughadha, one of the scientists at Kew Gardens in west London who helped lead the study.

‘Basis of life’
The rate aside, there is a more fundamental reason to worry about extinction of plants: they are the “basis of life” in the words of the IUCN’s Craig Hilton-Taylor. Ben Collen, a researcher at the Institute of Zoology, explained more: “Plants provide a number of functional things. Oxygen production is perhaps the main one we’re interested in. They [also] provide the basis of all food chains: they grow and fix nitrogen, they are eaten by things that eat plants, which are then fed on by larger organisms, which are fed on by larger organisms.”

Another study to be published formally at Nagoya will be the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report, which will try to list many of the other “ecosystem services” which plants and the biodiversity they support provide: climate control, water recycling, soil fixing, animal habitats, genetic material for disease resistance and human health, fibre and fuel, carbon storage. But despite more than a century of the conservation movement, biodiversity is more fragile than ever. As a result all eyes are on Nagoya.

There will be dozens of initiatives targeted at particular species and habitats. A more global suggestion is a protocol on “access and benefit sharing”, something the UK government is pushing, to set common standards for countries to tackle over-exploitation.

The biggest goal, however, will be to start changing the way humans value their natural environment, so the costs of destroying, say, an area of forest are made explicit in any decisions. Such a fundamental change in economics will take much longer than a conference, but is something TEEB was intended to begin. “What we do from now is going to lead to the future of plants,” Nic Lughadha told the launch. “We need to challenge the idea that plants are there to be exploited by us.” –

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