There were 1,730 new plant species discovered across the globe in 2016, including many that have the potential to be food crops, according to a recent report by London's The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The only problem is that many of the plants are already in danger of going extinct.
Among the more important discoveries made by scientists were 11 new cassava species from Brazil that have potential as food crops. This starchy root of the Manihot shrub is the third most important source of calories in the tropics after rice and corn, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Mostly grown by poor farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America—many of whom are women—millions of people depend on cassava as both a source of food and income, says the agency.
The newly-discovered species represent a 10 percent increase in the known number of relatives of the edible tubers. Cassava is important for the food security of a huge swath of the developing world since they grow well in poor soil, are fairly easy to cultivate, and can be left in the ground until needed.
Other plant discoveries made last year related to food and other crops include a new yam species from Brazil, a new parsnip from Turkey, a type of caper from the Philippines, and seven species of the South African plant called Aspalathus that’s commonly used for red bush or rooibos tea, and has seen a skyrocketing popularity in the West over the past few years. Six of the new redbush varieties are in danger of going extinct mostly due to habitat loss, according to the report.
There were also new discoveries of crops that could be used as animal fodder. Onobrychis citrina, from Greece, is a type of sainfoin—a perennial plant in the legume family—that may have a future as a food for ruminants (like cattle) since it’s high in protein and can help reduce gas released when the animal burps and farts.
The importance of these discoveries, according to Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, is the promise they hold for humanity, whether that be their potential as a medicine, in promoting soil health, or in the development of a new food crop.
“It’s really important to find these new species because they may well hold the genetic code—or the key—to more resilient food crops from pests and pathogens and climate change into the future,” Willis told the BBC.
This is the second year the Royal Botanic Gardens, which has the stated mission of being the global resource for plant and fungal knowledge, has put out this kind of report. The organization relied on “databases, published literature, policy documents, reports and satellite imagery to provide a synthesis of current knowledge on the world’s plants.”
“A detailed knowledge of plants is fundamental to human life on Earth,” Willis writes in the new report. “Plants underpin all aspects of our everyday life—from the food that we eat, to the clothes that we wear, the materials we use, the air we breathe, the medicines we take and much more.”
Check out this video on the report.