Healthy plants concern all of us!

In 2020, the international community puts the spotlight on plant health, as healthy plants form the basis of our food, our oxygen, a thriving nature and a large part of our economy.

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Woman gardens in vegetable garden

© iStock

Plants make up 80 percent of the food we eat and 98 percent of the oxygen we breathe. No need to mention that plants are crucial to our survival.

Unfortunately, all kinds of diseases and pests constitute a serious threat to plants. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), up to 40 percent of the world's food crops are lost to plant diseases, which cost the global economy almost 200 billion euros each year.

This problem is exacerbated by climate disruption and human activities such as deforestation, which undermine our natural environment, cause biodiversity loss and create new environments (or niches) in which diseases and pests can thrive.

In short, plant diseases not only cause more hunger in the world, they also take a big bite out of small farmers’ income. Plant health therefore contributes to several Sustainable Development Goals, especially those concerning hunger, poverty and environmental protection.

All the more reason for the international community to put plant health in the spotlight in 2020. The FAO organises numerous activities in this respect.

Focus on prevention

First and foremost the FAO wants to emphasize the fact that it is much better - and more cost efficient - to prevent new diseases and pests from invading a country than to cure them. In this regard both transportation and protection of the territory are crucial in order to spot problems rapidly.

Infected plant

A balanced environment - with sufficient natural enemies - is the best guarantee for healthy plants. © Shutterstock

Safe transport

The safe transport of plants is an important point of attention. For most countries, the trade in plants and parts of plants (fruits, seeds, roots...) is vital. In addition, more and more tourists are travelling far and wide and are happy to take an exotic (plant) souvenir with them. This means that pests can spread rapidly all over the world.

That is why the FAO insists that the transport of plants is done under strict "phytosanitary" conditions that result in healthy plants. The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) has developed specific standards for this. In the EU, travellers are not even allowed to bring in plants without a certificate (see below).

Sustainable production

A balanced environment - with sufficient natural enemies - is the best guarantee to generate safe plants and plant-based products, without any harmful diseases and pests.

That is why the FAO advises farmers to apply "integrated pest management". With this approach,  pests are controlled using natural means, such as natural enemies, resistant varieties and healthy soil. When there is no other solution, pesticides are used in limited quantities, so they cause as little damage as possible to natural enemies or pollinators. This benefits public health as well.

Early warning systems also help prevent the rapid spread of pests. Digital technologies (apps for farmers...) and drones (early detection of symptoms...) can play a role here.

Many target groups

By introducing the International Year of Plant Health, the FAO focuses on various target groups. For example, it advises governments to ensure that their imports of plants comply with IPPC standards, to install early warning systems and to stimulate research. Companies are advised to transport their plant products safely and to raise awareness among their customers, while farmers should only use certified seeds and report plant diseases as soon as possible.

Protecting plants, protecting life

Tips for the individual (EU) citizen

Yet individual citizens can also make an important contribution. Some points of  advice:

  1. Do not bring in plants from a far journey

    It is forbidden to bring plants into the EU from non-EU countries, unless accompanied by an approved phytosanitary certificate. This includes fruits, vegetables, seeds, cut flowers etc. Exceptions are: pineapple, dates, bananas, coconut and durian.
  2. Be cautious if you order plants or plant products online or by post

    Small parcels often escape thorough phytosanitary control. Demand a certificate.
  3. Protect the environment and be alert

    Enjoy nature and be alert. See anything special? Look it up and pass your observations along, on for example. In this way you can contribute to an exotic organism being tackled faster

    Apply the principles of sustainable production in your own garden and avoid the use of (unnecessary) pesticides and herbicides. If you protect plants, you protect life!

With the International Year of Plant Health, the FAO is also looking to the future. After all, the UN organisation anticipates that agriculture will have to produce 60 percent more by 2050 in order to feed the increased population. Let us not lose sight of plant health!

The FAO is an essential partner of the Belgian government.