2020 International Year of Plant Health

Plant diseases have existed since the dawn of human existence. In our special report in the current edition of FCI magazine, we look at the challenges writes editor Ron van der Ploeg.

Christian scholars know that the book of Exodus refers to locust plagues in Egypt, while philosopher Theophrastus (371-286 B.C.), considered the ‘father of botany’, studied and explained the consequences of plant pests.

Throughout history, pests and diseases have repeatedly wreaked havoc. By 1884, one million hectares of French vineyards had been destroyed due to the outbreak of a tiny yellow aphid, the dry-leaf devastator (Phylloxera vastatrix) that multiplied astonishingly. Church bells were rung in alarm as French wine was nearly lost forever until a series of grafting programmes eventually eliminated the dreaded pest.

The Potato late blight disease caused by Phytophthora infestans marked the great Irish Famine of 1845 which killed more than one million people and forced two million to leave their homeland.

As for dreaded pests and diseases in ornamentals, the more seasoned industry veterans among us remember how Thrips palmi in 1992 caused Dutch ‘ficus king’, Huub van Diemen to form barricades of sand, trucks and containers to prevent the Dutch plant health agency and police from entering his greenhouses and subsequently removing and destroying 1.3 million potted Ficus. More recently, in 2013, the spectre of Xylella fastidiosa emerged in the Apulia region of southern Italy.

As our special report shows in detail, international trade has become faster and busier and the risk of introduction and rapid spread of plant pests and diseases is greater than before. IPPC foreman Arop Deng warns that the financial toll of plant pests and diseases is massive.

Plant scientists also point to climate change. According to World Agriculture, an independent, peer-reviewed journal for policymakers and practitioners in the agriculture, there’s a growing scientific consensus that climate change affects plant health and vice-versa. The majority of research papers predict that plant diseases are likely to become more severe, epidemics will be more frequent and some pathogens will spread to new areas. The resistance which is developing in pests and pathogens to existing pesticides, the significant reduction of key plant protection products (PPP) coming to the market as well as increased regulation of control measures make life for a professional plant grower more challenging.

Plant diseases don’t respect borders and cause problems across all plant species, from iconic boxwood forests in Georgia to the queen of cut flowers (cut roses under threat by Ralstonia).

The International Year of Plant Health coincides with the new EU Plant Health Regulation 2016/2031, which came into force on December 14th, 2019. This legislation offers robust and rigorous checks against the spread of disease. It is still too early to say if the implementation of the new law will mean over-burdening commercial growers or traders with needless obstacles. But it is safe to say that it will set out new basic standards to ensure that EU countries work together to address plant pests and diseases. These include mandatory surveillance for high-risk pests and better use of the plant passport system.

The real results of the IYPH will be seen in the long term as people become more aware of how their actions contribute to plant health. That’s why MEP Anthea McIntyre urges politicians worldwide to make plant health a permanent priority.

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