NEW YORK, 19 SEPTEMBER 2010
Dear EarthTalk: When we talk about "endangered species" we usually
think of animal species, but someone recently told me that there was a
worldwide crisis pertaining to the extinction of plants. Can you
Max Blanchard, East Islip, New York
We may not realize it, but the health of the plant kingdom is crucial
to the health of the planet and the animal life (which includes humans) it
supports. "Through photosynthesis, plants provide the oxygen we breathe
and the food we eat and are thus the foundation of most life on Earth,"
reports the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit
dedicated to securing the future for endangered plants and animals
throughout the world.
"Unlike animals, plants cant readily move as their habitat is
destroyed, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction," says the
Center. Habitat destruction just one of the threats plants face can
lead to an "extinction debt" whereby even some plants that are plentiful
now could disappear over time by being unable to disperse to new habitat
patches. And global warming is already starting to exacerbate such
problems. "With plants making up the backbone of ecosystems and the base
of the food chain," says the group, "thats very bad news for all species,
which depend on plants for food, shelter and survival."
A 2009 report by the UK-based nonprofit, Plantlife, found that 15,000
of the 50,000 or so species of wild plants known for their medicinal
qualities in traditional remedies are being overexploited and are
potentially headed for extinction. The group says the fact that most
people around the world including some 80 percent of all Africans rely
on herbal medicines obtained primarily from wild plants underscores just
how serious a problem a mass extinction of wild plants could be for
humanity, let alone for the environment. Commercial over-harvesting does
the most harm, though pollution, competition from invasive species and
habitat destruction all contribute. "Commercial collectors generally
harvest medicinal plants with little care for sustainability," Plantlife
reports, adding that shortages already exist in China, India, Kenya,
Nepal, Tanzania and Uganda.
Another group, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature
(IUCN), which compiles and maintains the famous "Red List" of endangered
species around the world, found that a whopping 70 percent of the
12,000-plus plant species it has evaluated to date are threatened with
extinction despite the fact that each year about 2,000 new plants make
themselves known to science. Of course, the organization only evaluates
plants that are rare or have suffered major declines.
Meanwhile, researchers in the UK estimate that up to 33 percent of all
flowering plants worldwide are threatened with extinction. "That
percentage reflects the global impact of factors such as habitat loss,"
says Lucas Joppa, the studys lead author, who adds that climate change
could increase the toll.
This worldwide threat to plants is just part of a larger biodiversity
crisis, and the United Nations has declared 2010 "The International Year
of Biodiversity" to raise awareness and encourage action to help stem the
tide. The projects website features listings of celebrations taking place
around the world as well as resources for those who want to help spread
the word and be part of the solution.
Headline picture: Goldenseal, used as a multi-purpose
remedy and grown in southeastern Canada and the eastern U.S., is one such
CONTACTS: Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org;
IUCN, www.iucn.org; International Year
of Biodiversity, www.cbd.int/2010.
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