Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The Royal Botanical Garden report suggests orchids are "underrepresented" on the so-called Red List of Threatened Species. (Photo: Simon Clancy/flickr/cc)

'On Borrowed Time': Human Activity Puts One in Five Plant Species at Risk of Extinction

Habitat loss from agriculture and deforestation is a leading threat to world's plants

Deirdre Fulton

Human activity, from the razing of forests to the spewing of carbon, has imperiled large swaths of the plant kingdom, according to a landmark survey of the world's flora published Tuesday.

The State of the World's Plants (pdf) report "provides, for the first time, a baseline assessment of our current knowledge on the diversity of plants on earth, the global threats these plants currently face, and the policies in place and their effectiveness in dealing with these threats," according to scientists at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Kew, London.

Culling from three previously-existing databases, the botanists estimate that—excluding algae, mosses, liverworts, and hornworts—there are 390,900 plant species worldwide, of which approximately 369,400 are flowering and about 31,000 have a documented use for medicines, food, and materials.

And they find that fully one in five—21 percent—is at risk of extinction due to threats associated with climate change, land-use change, invasive plants, and diseases.

As the Guardian reports, "the biggest factors threatening plant species with extinction are the destruction of habitats for farming (31%)—such as palm oil production and cattle ranchingdeforestation for timber (21%), and construction of buildings and infrastructure (13%)."

While the botanists found global warming currently playing a smaller role in species-extinction (4%), they note that "the true impacts of climate change might not be seen for some time."

"[B]ased on what is known about plants' environmental tolerances and the predicted climate change by 2050...models predict that many plant species may be on 'borrowed time,'" the report reads. "These models predict that suitable climate space will become so severely restricted for many species that widespread climate-related extinctions are expected."

However, the news from Kew isn't all bad.

The study also found that 2,034 new plant species were discovered in 2015, including a massive leguminous tree (Gilbertiodendron maximum), more than 90 species of begonia, 13 new species from the onion family, and a close relative of sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). The global assessment will now be carried out annually, allowing scientists to monitor how plants are changing over time.

"Given how absolutely fundamental plants are for human well-being, for food, fuel, climate regulation, it's pretty important we know what's going on," said Kathy Willis, director of science at the RBG. "Unless we look at this information—the knowledge gaps—and then do something about it, we are in a very perilous situation, if we ignore the thing that underpins all our human well-being.

"I do find it extraordinary we worry about the state of the world's birds," Willis added, "but we don't worry about the state of the world's plants."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'We Won't Stop Fighting,' Vow South African Activists After Judge OKs Shell Seismic Blasting at Sea

"We must do everything we can to undo the destructive colonial legacy of extractivism, until we live in a world where people and the planet come before the profits of toxic fossil fuel companies."

Brett Wilkins ·


Biden Continues Drilling Boom on Public Lands Despite Campaign Pledge, Analysis Shows

"The reality is that in the battle between the oil industry and Biden, the industry is winning."

Julia Conley ·


Big Oil Profits Surge to $174 Billion in 2021 Amid Rising Gas Prices: Report

"Americans looking for someone to blame for the pain they experience at the pump need look no further than the wealthy oil and gas company executives who choose to line their own pockets."

Kenny Stancil ·


Rights Groups Decry 'Farcical and Corrupt' Verdict as Myanmar's Suu Kyi Sentenced to Four Years in Prison

"There are many detainees without the profile of Aung San Suu Kyi who currently face the terrifying prospect of years behind bars simply for peacefully exercising their human rights."

Jake Johnson ·


Campaigners Warn of 'Wave After Wave of Variants' as Long as Vaccine Apartheid Remains

"Omicron is with us because we have failed to vaccinate the world. This should be a wake-up call."

Jake Johnson ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo