Did you know that some tree species can only be germinated through the belly of an elephant? That’s just one example of how plants and animals (including humans) are intricately connected and cannot survive without all the bacteria and fungi that make for the healthy soils that plants need to prosper.
Plants are the source of the air we breathe and most of the food we eat, yet how to keep them healthy is often ignored. This can have devastating results: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that up to 40 per cent of food crops are lost due to plant pests and diseases annually. This leaves millions of people without enough food to eat and seriously damages agriculture—the primary source of income for rural poor communities.
For these and more reasons, 2020 has been named the International Year of Plant Health by the United Nations General Assembly.
“Plant health is increasingly under threat. Climate change and human activities have degraded ecosystems, reduced biodiversity and created new niches where pests can thrive,” says United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) expert Marieta Sakalian.
At the same time, international travel and trade has tripled in volume in the last decade, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, and can quickly spread pests and diseases around the world causing great damage to native plants and the environment.
For example, the North American pine wood nematode, Bursaphelenchus xylophilus, is a pest worm species that causes a disease known as pine wilt. It was discovered for the first time in the European Union in Portuguese forests in 1999. Today, the entire territory of Portugal is demarcated for the presence of the worm, with a 20 km buffer zone, free from the pest, established along the Spanish border to prevent its further spread.
Protecting plants from pests and diseases is far more cost effective than dealing with full-blown plant health emergencies. Plant pests and diseases are often impossible to eradicate once they have established themselves, and managing them is time-consuming and expensive. Prevention is critical to avoiding the devastating impact of pests and diseases on agriculture, livelihoods and food security and many of us have a role to play.
Integrated pest management is an ecosystem approach that combines different management strategies and practices to grow healthy crops while minimizing the use of pesticides. Avoiding poisonous substances when dealing with pests not only protects the environment, it also protects pollinators, natural pest enemies, beneficial organisms and the people and animals who depend on plants. Over 820 million people in the world are undernourished, a number that is growing, not falling. Policies and actions to promote plant health are fundamental for reaching Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2—No Poverty and Zero Hunger.
What else can be done?
Be careful when bringing plants and plant products across borders
Make trading in plants and plant products safe by complying with the international plant health standards
Invest in plant health capacity development, research and outreach
Strengthen monitoring and early warning systems to protect plants and plant health