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Fungi make up one of life’s kingdoms – as broad a category as “animals” or “plants” – and provide a key to understanding our planet. Yet fungi have received only a small fraction of the attention they deserve. The best estimate suggests that there are between 2.2 and 3.8 million species of fungi on Earth – as many as 10 times the estimated number of plant species – meaning that, at most, a mere 8% of all fungal species have been described. This glaring disparity becomes even more apparent when we examine global conservation efforts. While 76,000 species of animals and 44,000 species of plants have had their conservation priority assessed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, a meagre 560 fungal species have received similar attention. Fungi, in other words, represent a mere 0.5% of our global conservation priorities.
Also on the Forum Network: The International Day of Forests: Let’s reverse the damaging trends! by Catherine Gamper, Anais Rault & Sophie Lavaud
Aggravated by the increasing impacts of climate change globally, wildfires pose an immense risk to our ecosystems. It is therefore high time to strengthen forests’ resilience to the growing impacts of climate change to avoid reaching a lethal tipping point.
To truly appreciate the significance of fungi, it is important to understand their hidden world. Mushrooms, the reproductive organs of fungi, are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, fungi exist as intricate networks of mycelium—branching, tubular cells. If you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of healthy soil and laid it end to end, it could stretch anywhere from 100 meters to 10km. Mycelium is ecological connective tissue, a living seam by which much of life is stitched into relation. Mycelial networks wind through plant roots and shoots, animal bodies, sediments on the ocean floor, grasslands and forests. Of the carbon that is found in soils – which amounts to more than the amount of carbon found in plants and the atmosphere combined – a substantial proportion is bound up in tough organic compounds produced by fungi. More than 90% of plants depend on symbiotic fungi, which weave themselves between plant cells, supply plants with crucial nutrients and defend them from disease. These fungi are a more ancient part of planthood than leaves, flowers, fruit or even roots and lie at the base of the food webs that support much of life on Earth.
When fungi suffer, so do the ecosystems and the humans that depend on them.
Besides their foundational ecological importance, the chemical accomplishments of fungi have long shaped human life: bread, cheese, alcohol, soy sauce, penicillin, a host of powerful antiviral and anti-cancer compounds, cholesterol-lowering statins and immunosuppressant drugs that enable organ transplants, to name but a few. When fungi suffer, so do the ecosystems and the humans that depend on them.
(Austropaxillus statuum - Credits Giuliana Furci)
And so, the science is clear: fungi are essential to maintaining a stable climate system (given their role in sequestering carbon in soil) and preserving ecosystemic health. Legislation and regulatory policy, however, have not caught up. Across many environmental and conservation policies, fungi have been overlooked or undervalued. This oversight has consequences: when fungi are put at risk – endangering the ecosystems that depend on them – we miss opportunities to advance solutions to serious environmental problems like climate change and land degradation.
There’s a good reason why so much work goes into assessing the conservation status of different species: from the point of view of policymakers if nothing is under threat, there’s nothing to protect. But despite their minimal presence on our lists of endangered species, we know of many threats to fungi. Large swathes of the fungal kingdom are intimately associated with plants and so are killed off by the same activities, such as deforestation. Fungi are also subject to additional disruptions, from plowing to the overuse of fungicides and fertilizers.
Ultimately, the inclusion of fungi in conservation efforts would contribute to a more holistic approach to biodiversity protection and ensure a resilient and thriving biosphere for generations to come.
As things stand, most environmental laws and international bodies, together with many large international NGOs, refer only to the conservation of flora (plants) and fauna (animals). Adding a third “F” – funga – to the list would write this neglected kingdom of life into conservation and policy frameworks and unlock crucial funding for mycological research, surveys and educational programmes. Ultimately, the inclusion of fungi in conservation efforts would contribute to a more holistic approach to biodiversity protection and ensure a resilient and thriving biosphere for generations to come.
(Hypholoma frowardii - Credits Giuliana Furci)
Fungi have long supported and enriched life on our planet and can help address many urgent environmental problems. It is time for fungi to be recognised within legal conservation frameworks and protected on an equal footing with animals and plants.
We call upon state leaders, civil society, scientists, and citizens of the world to seize this moment and create legal protections for fungi under international, regional, and domestic laws and policies. By doing so, we acknowledge the equal significance of fungi among the kingdoms of life and address the threats that jeopardize them. Our existence is intricately intertwined with fungi, yet we rarely give them the consideration they deserve. We cannot ignore them any longer.
(Sowerbyella rhenana - Credits Giuliana Furci)
To learn more, read Biodiversity: Finance and the Economic and Business Case for Action
This report sets the economic and business case for urgent and ambitious action on biodiversity. It presents a preliminary assessment of current biodiversity-related finance flows, and discusses the key data and indicator gaps that need to be addressed to underpin effective monitoring of both the pressures on biodiversity and the actions (i.e. responses) being implemented.
And also check out the OECD Environment website
OECD work on environment helps countries design and implement effective policies to address environmental problems and sustainably manage natural resources.