International Year of Plant Health 2020

Is awareness raised or upstaged by the new coronavirus?

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We were all supposed to be thinking about plant diseases this year. In December 2018, the United Nations declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health. They hoped 2020 would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to raise global awareness on this issue. Today, I should have been speaking at the Royal Society in the UK event "Our plants our future". Hundreds of events were planned around the world. Belgium issued a special two-euro coin. We planned to focus on the devastating impact that plant pests and pathogens have on the environment and economy.

But human health have taken over. The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the globe. We are all, quite rightly, focused on human health. Our planned events are cancelled, and plant health has all but dropped of the media agenda.

Compared to the devastation caused by COVID-19, and the tragedy of each individual human death, the upstaging of the International Year of Plant Health is a just minor disappointment, lost in the tsunami of greater woes. It is a pity that this unique opportunity to highlight the need for action against plant pests and pathogens has been overshadowed by such darkness.

In the long term, however, COVID-19 may do more to raise awareness of plant health issues than all our planned events. The coronavirus pandemic reminds us all that pathogens can do more damage, at greater speed, than burning fossil fuels and discarding single use plastics. When it comes to plant disease in particular, the impacts are felt directly by the natural environment.

For example, during most of the twentieth century, a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus and a beetle called Agrilus planipennis were only found in east Asia, where they did little damage to native trees. But about two decades ago, humans accidentally moved the fungus to Europe where it causes ash dieback, and the beetle to North America where it attacks ash trees. They have killed millions of native ash trees, devastating native ecosystems. They have far reaching consequences for the conservation of species that depend on ash and they turn living carbon-sequestering ash trees into rotting carbon-emitters. 

We have not done enough to slow and prevent the spread of plant pests and pathogens. Radical action is needed. Just today, to prevent the entry of bacterial pathogen Xylella fastidiosa, the UK has banned the import of living coffee plants and placed tough controls on the import of living olive, almond, oleander, lavender and rosemary plants. Lockdowns on living plants are always difficult and cause disruption for industry. But today we all understand more than ever before that stopping disease spread needs radical action. 

Globalisation does not just allow human diseases to spread uncontrollably around the world. It moves pathogens that affect all life on earth. The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call that we need costly action to stop the spread of pathogens that damage the natural environment, as well as pathogens that attack humans.

Richard Buggs

Professor, Queen Mary University of London

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