A new year takes root

Celia Knight and Nicola Spence look ahead to 2020: the International Year of Plant Health

The Biologist 66(6) p9

Plant health is important to all of us: it affects our food supply, our environment and our economy. Maintaining plant health in a changing climate is a global problem and will be acknowledged by 2020 being designated the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH).

Defra’s plant health risk register lists over 1,000 pests that threaten our crops, gardens and countryside. To take just one example, Xylella fastidiosa is a bacterial wilt disease causing significant damage to olive trees in southern Europe. Many UK plants would be at risk if plants infected with X.fastidiosa were imported. Another entry to note is the emerald ash borer, which is currently requiring surveillance to prevent entry from Eastern Europe and protect UK ash trees already affected by ash dieback disease.

The proposal for 2020 to become the IYPH was initiated by Finland and agreed by the United Nations in December 2018. Since then countries across the world have been working on events to promote plant health to a global audience. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the International Plant Protection Convention have produced a ‘getting started guide’ and visual identity guidelines.

A team within Defra are coordinating UK events alongside partners with interests in plant health. Activities will run throughout the year, but will be focused around a new national Plant Health Week. It will encompass World Earth Day and take place from 20th to 27th April 2020, and will become an annual event thereafter.

Plant Health Week will provide a focus for activities aimed at industry, academics and the general public to improve awareness of the importance of keeping plants healthy. The Plant Health Portal will provide further information on plans for IYPH in the UK.

The UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) is organising a workshop (20th to 22nd October in York) for plant professionals from sectors including agriculture, horticulture, forestry, biotechnology and any area in which plant health is important. Structured discussions guided by professionals will help those early in their careers extend their networks and contribute to addressing the challenges. Look out for further details and information on how to apply through the UKPSF newsletter.

We encourage all biologists to think about creating opportunities to engage more people with IYPH 2020’s message. You don’t have to be a plant pathologist to share with your colleagues, friends and family the importance of plant health, and the UKPSF will be pleased to direct enquiries to the relevant Member Organisations.

The Society itself also runs plant health undergraduate studentships and the Plant Health Professional Register. The professional register is now aligned to the horticultural sector’s Plant Health Management Standard. This is available on the Plant Healthy website, which promotes the standard to people who work with and grow plants.

Plant health is a great way to engage the wider public in outreach and STEM education activities, and to show that plants offer wide and varied career opportunities. If any members or local branches of the RSB would be interested in staging an IYPH 2020 event next year with their local plant health professionals, we can help make the connections.

As we approach 2020, let’s all use the international year designation to make a real difference.

More information on the International Year of Plant Health 

Dr Celia Knight FRSB MBE is a Plant science education and employability consultant. Professor Nicola Spence FRSB is Defra’s chief plant health officer and president of the British Society for Plant Pathology