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Forgotten kingdom of fungi!

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By John Scanlon

· 5 min read

One of the great pleasures of working in the environment field is the many passionate people one gets to interact with, including gifted professionals who are driven by a sense of purpose.

Since joining the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew (Kew) Board last year, I have had my eyes opened to the extraordinary world of mycology, the branch of biology concerned with the study of fungi. 

An independent form of life on Earth 

While attending the launch of the 5th State of the Planet’s Plants and Fungi Report at Kew, I had the opportunity to meet with a number of inspiring mycologists, and a more passionate and committed group of people would be hard to find. They are not only focussed on advancing the science but on ensuring the world’s attention is drawn to the importance of fungi - the world’s forgotten Kingdom. 

Fungi are neither animals nor plants; they have, since 1969, occupied their own Kingdom. They are an independent form of life on Earth. 

Why do fungi matter?

So, why do fungi matter? Well, if you enjoy a glass of wine or beer, they are the result of a unique interaction between fungi and plants. But fungi are so much more than that. 

Wild fungi are a key component of natural ecosystems, they maintain soil fertility by decomposing organic matter, and facilitate the uptake of water and nutrients, thereby enhancing carbon sequestration. Moreover, the harvest, use, and trade of wild fungi are essential economic and cultural activities, supporting livelihoods and providing food and medicinal ingredients.

There are organisations dedicated to fungi, and a ‘fauna flora fungi’ (‘FFF’) initiative that is seeking to write fungi into the script at all levels. The FFF Initiative aims “to write this neglected kingdom of life into conservation and agricultural policy frameworks, protect it under international and domestic law, and unlock crucial funding for mycological research, surveys and educational programs.”

What do we know about fungi?

The reality is we remain largely ignorant of fungi. The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi Report found that the world has an estimated 2,500,000 species of fungi. But more than 90% of fungal species are yet to be scientifically described, which is quite an extraordinary statistic. 

At present, over 2,500 species of fungi are named as new to science each year; continuing at this current rate would require 750–1,000 years to name the remaining unknown species. However, the use of modern DNA technologies could greatly accelerate this process, with research showing that one teaspoon of soil can contain hundreds of fungal species.

How can fungi be better recognised? 

I am personally persuaded by the call of the world’s mycologists to write the forgotten kingdom of fungi into international legal and policy frameworks, including writing fungi into the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

CITES is the international agreement signed in 1973 to regulate international trade in certain species of wild fauna and flora. While CITES was signed after fungi were recognised as occupying their own independent Kingdom, the Convention text only refers to wild fauna and flora; not fungi. 

Are fungi covered under CITES?

In 2002, the Parties to CITES agreed at the 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Santiago, Chile that “species of fungi are covered by the Convention.” Yet no fungal species has ever been proposed for listing, or listed, under the Convention. If one were to be listed, it would need to be formally proposed and listed as a plant. This poses a problem, as fungi are not plants. 

This anomaly could be corrected by making some modest amendments to the Convention text. How would this be done? It gets a bit technical, but for those who are interested, here is a brief and incomplete overview.

How could fungi be better recognised under CITES? 

A process for amending CITES is set out in the Convention text. One-third of CITES Parties can request specific amendments to the Convention text, which must be done in writing. If this is done, then the CITES Secretariat is required to convene an extraordinary meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to consider and adopt these amendments. For the proposed amendments to be accepted, two-thirds of CITES Parties present and voting must adopt them. An extraordinary meeting can be scheduled to align with a regular CoP, with the next regular CoP to be held in 2025. 

Despite this relatively straightforward process, there is a historical reluctance on the part of Parties and observers to open up the Convention text for amendments. However, for an amendment of this nature, it may be possible to overcome this historical aversion to making changes to the text.

If not, there are other options available. They are not legally binding but would still advance the matter. CITES Parties can adopt Resolutions at a CoP, which can serve to interpret and guide the implementation of the Convention. Any Party can submit a draft Resolution for consideration by a CoP. For a draft Resolution to be adopted, it requires two-thirds of the Parties present and voting to adopt it. 

A draft Resolution specifically dedicated to CITES and fungi could be prepared and submitted by a Party or Parties. The content could include Parties agreeing to a specific annotation being included with any listing of fungi under CITES to distinguish them from plants.

Out of sight but not out of mind!

While fungi are often out of sight, they should never be out of mind. Over the coming months and years, I will join with leaders in this field, including the effervescent Giuliana Furci, and work with like-minded countries, to help ensure this neglected kingdom of life is built into international legal and policy frameworks, starting with CITES. Watch this space! 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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