They say people have nothing without their health.
Well, says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the same goes for plants.
In fact, the FAO is so determined to get this message across to the entire planet that it’s declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health.
While readers of The Grower will likely be more interested to know that next year, 2021, is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, let’s seize on what’s good about the International Year of Plant Health. Because actually, there’s a lot to like.
To begin with, the topic of plant health – similar to fruits and vegetables -- immediately resonates with ruralites and urbanites. That’s different than some international years -- such as 2019, which the FAO decided to tag the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements.
(Actually, it’s too bad that proclamation didn’t make headlines. If more people understood we are naturally made of chemicals, maybe chemicals would be viewed with less brimstone and fire.)
The International Year of Plant Health is dripping with accessibility. You can even observe it in your own home with houseplants – they release oxygen, clean up the air to a certain extent, reduce stress and enhance concentration. Multiply that hard work exponentially – across millions of acres of farmland everywhere -- and it’s clear why the FAO is so bullish on plant health. It says healthy plants can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.
And that’s not hyperbole. Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, often said health was the first line of defence against disease. Healthy people have a better chance fighting illness of all kinds. And in a world where, according to the FAO, plants make up 80 per cent of the food we eat, plants must be healthy so we too can be healthy.
Yet every year, 40 per cent of all the plants grown in the world succumb to pests and disease, according to the FAO. It says this amounts to annual agricultural trade losses of more than $220 billion. Such losses leave millions of people facing hunger, and severely damages agriculture, the primary income source for poor rural communities.
The FAO wants to promote the idea that protecting plants from pests and diseases is far more cost effective than dealing with full-blown plant health emergencies.
As producers know, plant pests and diseases can be impossible to eradicate once they’re established. And managing them is time consuming, expensive and increasingly unpopular with consumers.
But let’s also consider the new frontiers that plants are leading us to, such as unconventional plant-based foods and even vaccines.
For example, Canadian biopharmaceutical company PlantForm Corporation, which grew from plant-based technology developed at the University of Guelph, is working with scientists to develop new antibody treatments for HIV/AIDS. These antibodies are developed in plants that serve as bioreactors.
“Everything we do depends on having a consistent supply of healthy plants to produce the biopharmaceutical products we want,” said Doug Cossar, the company’s vice-president of research. “Healthier plants are more robust and respond better to yield more product, so we need fewer plants to get the same amount of product. That lowers our costs.”
PlantForm maintains what Cossar calls an active plant health research program, to optimize how much light, nutrition and CO2 its plants receive so only the healthiest plants enter its manufacturing process.
But few plants have such safe confines. FAO director-general Qu Dongyu says climate change and human activities are altering ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and creating conditions where pests can thrive.
At the same time, he says, international travel and trade have tripled in volume in the last decade and can quickly spread pests and diseases around the world causing great damage to native plants and the environment.
This all spells trouble for plants. So he’s promoting a proactive message.
“As with human or animal health,” he says, “prevention in plant health is better than cure.”
Read more about the International Year of Plant Health at http://www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/home/en/