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Crops and plants humans don’t need are heading for extinction, according to new study

Young woman with glasses smiling
4 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long
ellow Ginkgo trees on road lane in Napa Valley, California

A huge number of crop and plant species worldwide face almost-certain extinction because humans don’t “need” them, a new study has found, in a new blow for global crop diversity. 

Published in the scientific journal Plants, People, Planet, the report classified more than 80,000 plant species – of these, it predicted which would be “winners” and which “losers” of the Anthropocene, the current period of history which is characterised by intense human activity and impact on the world. 

In particular, over the last one thousand years, we humans have touched and, in many cases, radically altered almost every element in the Earth’s biosphere, which is the space on our planet inhabited by living things,” the report says. 

Today the activities of humans continue to change the climate, degrade and destroy natural habitats, move plants and animals from one continent to another, exploit and over-utilize natural resources, and extensively pollute the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the lithosphere more than any other species now or in the past.”

Some 20,290 species of plants are categorised as losers. The majority are classed as such because they are not helpful to humans, for instance as crops or building materials. 

Only 6,749 of the plants assessed were designated as winners. Crops like corn, rice and wheat – which cover 40% of the surface of the planet, according to the study – are winners. 

As are some species of tree which have gone extinct in the wild, but thrive elsewhere. A good example of this is the ginkgo tree, which is planted across New York City but no longer found in the wilds of its native China.

The remaining plants studied comprise 26,002 “potential” losers and 18,664 “potential” winners. The fate of these plants, according to the report, could go either way depending on conservation efforts and human activity.

For all the crop species which thrive, there are countless which have been left to go extinct. The issue of crop diversity is a pressing one around the world, and the impact of continually losing species is hard to overstate. 

Crop Trust, a Germany-based organisation which advocates for international crop diversity, says there are six main reasons why humans should be actively trying to conserve crop diversity.

These include ensuring food security, simply by having more harvested crops to go around; adapting to climate change, where some varieties may grow better in changing weather conditions than others; and reducing environmental degradation, for example by growing plants that are more naturally resistant to pest to avoid the use of harmful pesticides

Crop diversity concerns have been growing particularly over the last 50 years, but infamous examples are littered throughout history. 

Perhaps the most well-known is the Great Famine of Ireland, where one widely grown species of potato was attacked by a disease, leading to entire harvests being decimated and widespread starvation and death. 

One of the biggest targets of modern-day crop diversity challenges is corn. Global production yields more than one billion metric tons of corn every year, according to the Global Alliance for the Future of Food

However, indigenous varieties of corn are increasingly threatened by international trade agreements which demand only high-yield varieties, aggressive pesticide use and highly modified seeds. 

The impact of such action is wide. Smallholder farmers are increasingly pushed towards corn varieties which are seen as “more desirable” or else face financial problems, for example. Meanwhile as genetic variety falls, yields are more susceptible to disease. 

Improving this situation is not as difficult as one might think, according to Richard Corlett, Professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in China. He told The Guardian with enough effort, any plant can be saved from extinction, for example through seed banks, cryogenic storage, living collections or planting initiatives. 

“How many people can name a threatened plant?” he said. “Plant conservation is not like animal conservation, where we continue to lose species despite efforts to save them. In plant conservation, there are no hopeless cases, at least in regards to extinction.”