It’s easy to imagine that we know most all of the species we share this planet with, and that new discoveries are rare. But the truth is that we don’t even know how many species there are. More than 4,000 new species of plants and fungi were found in 2019 alone. Nearly 20 of those were viable new food crops, and one newfound kind of tidal grass is a promising anti-inflammatory. But according to new research, 40 percent of plant species are at risk of extinction.

Professor Alexandre Antonelli, director of science at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, England, calls the vast populations of plant species yet to be discovered a “treasure chest” of potential medicines, food crops, soil fixers, and other vital gifts.

Antonelli and over 200 other scientists from 42 countries collaborated on an immense, statistical assessment of the current state of biodiversity worldwide. Beginning with the known proportion of species under threat as recorded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, they adjusted the data to account for biases, such as geographical areas that go chronically under-visited by researchers doing fieldwork.

In 2019, it was reported that 571 known plant species have vanished since 1750, though scientists have always known the true number to be much higher. A study in 2016 found that 20 percent of plant species at least qualified as threatened, mostly by the loss of wild habitat in favor of farmland and pasturage. Antonelli’s study indicates the true number is more than twice that.

“Every time we lose a species, we lose an opportunity for humankind,” said Antonelli of his study. “We are losing a race against time as we are probably losing species faster than we can find and name them.”

Former Alliance of Biodiversity International Senior Scientist Stefano Padulosi said, “The thousands of neglected plant species are the lifeline to millions of people on Earth tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity, and [poverty]. Harnessing this basket of untapped resources for making food production systems more diverse and resilient to change should be our moral duty.”

Currently, just 15 plant species provide 90 percent of the world’s calories, mostly varieties of rice, maize, and wheat. This leaves us vulnerable; for example, a blight could wipe out any of the very few legs the global diet stands on. Each new food species we find and cultivate is a shield against that happening. And every single plant extinction threatens that.

Photo via Shutterstock