More dependent on less and less

The early press release of the 2020 State of the World’s Plants and Fungi by Kew Royal Botanic Gardens paints a bleak picture.

Erin Moody, Rainforest in El Cielo, Mexico

2 in 5 plant species are at risk of extinction, including 723 plants we humans use for medicine. The pace of conservation is not keeping up with the pace of destruction in plants and fungi, as with animals.

Though the causes of plant destruction are many and contain all the usual culprits (deforestation, climate change), there is another important problem in our relationship with plants and fungi. Professor Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at Kew said,

“The data emerging from this year’s report paint a picture of a world that has turned its back on the potential of plants and fungi to address fundamental global issues such as food security and climate change. Societies have been too dependent on too few species for too long. At a time of rapid biodiversity loss, we are failing to access the treasure chest of incredible diversity on offer and missing a huge opportunity for our generation.”

Unfortunately the process of human societies using less and less biodiversity is a long one, still underway. The beginning of agriculture cut us from the hunter gatherer approach where we necessarily sampled a large section of the biodiversity of wild plants and animals.

Domestication and its cousin agriculture create a system where people become more beholden to a smaller group of animals, plants and fungi for all of their subsistence. If you grow corn, you spend more time in your fields and less in the forest, desert or prairie surrounding them. This translates to less time gathering berries, herbs, roots and other edible or medicinal plants.

My friend James “Matt” Crass’s greenhouse in Grand Junction, CO

There are of course people who gather some plants and cultivate others or plants that are not completely domesticated but cultivated in some way. Still, agriculture leads humans to invest more time and resources into fewer plant species for use. In a 1987 article in Discover, Jared Diamond called agriculture, “The worst mistake in the history of the human race”. According to Diamond agriculture leads to overwork, gender inequality and many other social ills. There is no question it leads to a smaller diversity of plants used by humans.

This more time invested into a smaller diversity of plants has only increased under modern, technologically advanced and mechanized agricultural systems. Traditional agriculture required plants to evolve from human and environmental pressures into new varieties.

Genetic modification along with dependence on chemicals changed this for plants, industrial methods also shrink the diversity of animal livestock. A 2019 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that more than 6,000 plants have been cultivated for food. However, less than 200 plant species contribute regionally, nationally or globally to food supplies. In fact, only 9 plant species account for 66% of crop production in the world today. The same report found that 2,822 distinct species of wild foods, the vast majority of which are plants, are still consumed globally. 24% of these wild foods are decreasing in abundance and 61% have unknown or unreported status.
A big part of the problem of loss of Plant and fungi diversity as related to agriculture is globalization. A 2010 paper points out that hunter gatherer societies, much like old crop breeds, are (and were) different from one another, each adapted to a local environment,

“ There was no single stage of human development, just different adaptations to ecological and social circumstances. It is now better accepted, though not universally, that cultures are adapted to localities, and thus are configured with a wide variety of land uses and livelihoods. As a result, foraging and farming across the world are actually ‘overlapping, interdependent, contemporaneous, coequal and complementary’ (Sponsel 1989). This suggests that many rural people and their cultures might be better known as variants of cultivator–hunters or farmer–foragers rather than just farmers or hunter–gatherers. Culture and nature are thus bound together”

Modern industrial agriculture is different, with the same small handful of crops dominating agricultural systems anywhere in the world. Actually, modern agriculture can almost be seen as a left over remnant in some ways of the now defunct acclimatization societies which promoted moving plants and animals from their native habitats to other places.

These societies seemed to promote a homogenization of the world where all of the fruits, vegetables and ‘useful’ animal life could be found anywhere in the world. Thankfully these societies were unsuccessful, though they left the scars of invasive species. Modern agriculture seems to be pursuing a similar, though slightly less ambitious goal. Through technology all of the world’s major crops will soon be able to grow anywhere and local traditional foodstuffs will be displaced, to the detriment of biodiversity and human health. The process is already begun.

The good news is that technology is a double edged sword and we can use it for good as well as destruction. We live in an unprecedented age of paradox, along with the massive destruction and loss, we also still live in an age of discovery. In 2019 1,942 species of plants and 1,886 species of fungi were described by science for the first time. This includes ten relatives of spinach described in California as well as many new species related to tea from Asia and some manioc relatives from Brazil. This shows that, while we may be ignoring most of the possibilities of plants, a world of abundance is still waiting for us.

We still have an opportunity to work for the preservation of plant life and to forge a new relationship with the world, including embracing a greater variety of plants tailored to the specific environments we live in.

More research can help with understanding the needs of plants and fungi and working to save them. Supporting organizations like Kew, your local garden or native plant society is a good step towards that.

You can also learn about the plants you share the world with. In college I took a class in local flora along with normal botany and fungi classes. I’ve forgotten a lot but as I’ve moved around the US and visited other parts of the world, I’ve also learned new things. I’ve even made string from leaves, eaten berries and used all of my senses to identify plants. From the grocery store to a garden to forests and deserts, relationships with plants are endlessly fascinating. Like all relationships, if we don’t nourish the one we have with plants, it will suffer greatly.

Unfortunately, like all relationships, ours with plants is prone to abuse. According to the Kew report, 13% of the 5,411 medicinal plants assessed were found to be threatened. Of the only six medicinal fungi assessed, one, eburiko (Fomitopsis officinalis) is on the brink of extinction.

There is much more we need to know to truly understand the threats facing the world of plants and fungi, research is filling in many of those gaps but according to Dr. Nic Lughadha, there are some traps in our thinking to avoid,

“The first trap is thinking that an individual species assessment tells us everything we need to know about that species’ risk of extinction. And the second trap is thinking that the subset of species that have been assessed, and the stats around them, tell us everything we need to know about the risk to plants and fungi globally.”

Some plants like cacti are over represented on the Red List of endangered plants, while some are under represented. This shows a certain bias in research that must be addressed. Some plants are barely identified by science before they’re almost extinct, some don’t even get that much recognition.

Whatever the state of specific plant groups, the problem is clear – we humans, have ignored our part in the earth’s ecology for too long. If we continue pretending that we are separate from the rest of nature, we are bound to destroy it, and ourselves.

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