In the context of a global pandemic, plant health may seem far down the list of priorities, but it shouldn't be. Lost in all the chaos of 2020 is the fact that it's the UN International Year of Plant Health, and we would be wise to shed some light on this milestone — and act now to prevent a potential "plant pandemic" that could severely affect our global food supply.
Already, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN estimates that pests result in the loss of up to 40% of global food crops each year, and the associated costs are astronomical. The FAO estimates that plant diseases cost the global economy around $220 billion annually.
I believe a pandemic that affects plants the way Covid-19 has felled humans is a real and looming threat and could wipe out huge swaths of agricultural land and food systems. Indeed, history is rife with examples of where they already have, from the Irish potato famine of nearly 200 years ago to wheat rust epidemics that threaten the world's wheat supply today.
To make matters worse, globalization has reportedly exacerbated the spread of plant pests and disease, while changing climates weaken crops and may make them more vulnerable to attack. Some pathogen particles like Austropucciniapsidii, a fungal strain that threatens Australia's guava species, don't even need human assistance to spread. They are carried by the breeze.
But we needn't resign ourselves to inevitable catastrophe if we can shift our approach to plant and human health.
Ever since the first Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, the world's nations have succumbed to the virus like a chain of dominos. As we've seen, it's much harder to putout fires once they've started than to create more resistant systems overall.
As much as our health care systems have risen to the challenge of the pandemic, we now know there were many gaps that the pandemic illuminated, putting global security and economic prosperity at risk. My hope is that coming out of Covid-19, we can reinvent those systems to better promote health rather than simply manage disease, as one former Forbes contributor described.
We can and should apply the same lens to agriculture. Currently, we often rely on crop protection chemicals to treat diseases already affecting plants instead of fortifying crops throughout their life cycle. Furthermore, fallout from unsustainable agriculture practices like monocultures and ecosystem degradation can actually make our farming and food systems even more vulnerable to disease and pests. A lack of biodiversity in what we grow means that soil often becomes depleted of nutrients (paywall),which may make crops more susceptible to disease.
Put simply, I don't believe the practice of managing disease with chemical pesticides, herbicides and other measures that disrupt nature's instincts is working. The time is ripe to focus on true plant health.
Like humans, plants have immune systems. The stronger they are, the better they can weather stresses.
Simple practices such as no-till farming, crop rotation, crop diversity and rotational grazing can work with nature to strengthen plants and contribute to more nutritious, abundant and resilient food systems. Long term, smaller, more diverse fields can benefit biodiversity and can help combat pests naturally. Healthy soil, meanwhile, grows healthier plants and also acts as a powerful and beneficial carbon sink.
Green chemistries and advanced technologies like artificial intelligence can help us better understand plant health by deciphering the causative and correlative effects of sickness and health. Machine vision algorithms and predictive modeling can help farmers grow more food with fewer chemicals by informing decisions about what a crop needs, exactly when it's needed. Prospera, a startup based in Tel Aviv, analyzes millions of data points with AI to identify pest and disease outbreaks, Anheuser-Busch and Sentera have partnered to empower growers to produce high-quality yields with remote sensing tools, and the EU has funded "project Asterix" —which utilizes an autonomous field robot that uses machine learning and precision nozzle tech to spray eco-friendly biopesticides only on the weeds.
Some of these sophisticated technologies are still in the early stages and aren't yet universally accessible. But with our collective priorities in order, we can work on getting them into the hands of individual farmers and stewards so they can make less disruptive choices for the collective good.
If there is a silver lining to crises like Covid-19, it's that we may suddenly find ourselves with time to rethink our systems and reflect on how interconnected we are to each other and the natural world.
Many of us have spent the last months nurturing sourdough starters, planting seeds in patio gardens or escaping into the wilderness for solace. Even while socially distanced, we have found ways of living in alignment with the planet instead of in isolation from it.
More than ever, a healthy future for humans relies on healthy plants.
Originally published on Forbes.