A study has suggested we might struggle to reach international conservation targets by 2020, with thousands of useful wild plants at risk.
The study from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), to be published in the journal Ecological Indicators in March 2019, shows that common items like vanilla, cacao, coffee, and even firs used for Christmas trees could be in trouble.
Of the 7,000 species of wild plants from 220 countries they examined as part of the Useful Plants Indicator, only 3 percent were classified as “low priority” or “sufficiently conserved”. This meant that, on a conservation scale of one to 100, the top being fully protected and zero not at all, 97 percent of wild plant species scored less than 50.
"This indicator underscores the urgency to protect the world's useful wild plants," said Colin Khoury from CIAT, the study's lead author, in a statement.
"The indicator not only helps us measure where countries and the world stand with regard to safeguarding this natural and cultural heritage, but it provides actual information per species that can be used to take action to improve their conservation status."
Scoring particularly poorly was Coffea liberica, a plant used in Africa for coffee breeders and disease resistance, which scored just 32.3. In fact, none of the 32 coffee species listed scored above 35.3, with more than two-thirds having no known genetic material stored in gene banks.
The Nordmann fir Abies nordmanniana, which is a popular European Christmas tree, scored incredibly poorly at 13.5, making it a high priority. Only one of 13 firs studied, Japan’s A. vietchii, was classified as “low priority”.
Meanwhile Theobroma cacao, a wild ancestor of chocolate found in the tropical Americas, scored 35.4. And vanilla and cinnamon were scored at 39.8 and 23.0, respectively.
The researchers noted that their scores looked at both in situ and ex situ conservation, the former being plants in protected areas like national parks, and the latter being plants in gene banks and botanical gardens.
And they cautioned that in situ conservation alone might not be enough for many plants, as rapid climate change can push species beyond park borders. While these protected zones for plants were good, more work needed to be done.
"But if we want to get serious about protecting these species, especially the ones that are vulnerable, we have a long way to go before they are fully protected," said Khoury.
The study was carried out after the United Nations said that, by 2020, these 7,000 species needed to be fully protected. But the signs are not good. "There's no way we're going to hit these 2020 targets," Khoury said.