Within a few short months, a virus that began in one city quickly spread, overwhelming hospitals and wreaking havoc on economies and social structures worldwide. We now know just how interconnected we are and how quickly our lives can be turned upside down by pathogens that have no respect for human borders.
Within the context of the global pandemic, plant health may seem far down the list of priorities, but it shouldn’t be. We would be wise to take a lesson from Covid-19 and investigate our food systems, and act now to make them more resilient and resistant to a potential “plant pandemic” — for the good of human health.
Why plant health matters more than ever
Lost in all the chaos of 2020 is the fact that it’s the UN International Year of Plant Health. Why is this important? Plants are an essential part of our survival, making up over 80 percent of the human diet. When plant life suffers, humans suffer, too. Crop loss impacts farmers’ livelihoods, creates gaps in the global supply chain and leads to economic turmoil and food scarcity. Meanwhile, the reduction in biodiversity caused by deforestation and other unsustainable practices compounds the effects of climate change.
Already, pests and disease result in the loss of up to 40 percent of global food crops each year, and the associated costs are astronomical. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that plant diseases cost the global economy around $220 billion annually.
A pandemic that affects plants the way Covid-19 has impacted humans is a real and looming threat, and could wipe out huge swaths of agricultural land and whole food systems. Indeed, history is rife with examples of where this has already happened.
In the 1840s, blight in potato crops caused famine in Ireland and Scotland, killing approximately two million people and displacing millions more. In 2013, the bacteria Xylella emerged in southern Italy’s olive groves, devastating crops. Trees that had defined the region and withstood centuries of change suddenly fell victim to an insect-borne disease. Even now, wheat rust epidemics threaten the survival of the world’s wheat supply, and soil-borne strains of Fusarium could cause a mass extinction of the banana as we know it.
Making matters worse, globalization has exacerbated the spread of plant pests and disease, while changing climates weaken crops, making them more vulnerable to attack. Some pathogen particles like Austropuccinia psidii, 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.
Health care vs. disease care
Ever since the first outbreak in Wuhan, China, the world’s nations have succumbed to the virus like a chain of dominos. Each country has fought to stem the tide but, as we’ve seen, it’s much harder to put out fires once they’ve started rather than 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 allowed it to take hold, putting global security and economic prosperity at risk. The hope is that coming out of Covid, we can reinvent those systems to promote health, rather than simply manage disease.
We can, and should, apply the same lens to agriculture. Rather than just using crop protection chemicals to treat diseases already affecting plants, we should fortify crops throughout their life cycle. Furthermore, a lack of biodiversity in what we grow means that soil doesn’t always get replenished key with nutrients. Over time, it becomes depleted, growing weaker crops that are more susceptible to disease and less rich in the nutrients that people and animals need.
Soybeans are one example of a crop at high risk for these very reasons. Given the right circumstances, disease could spread through the world’s soybean supply like wildfire, taking out a crop worth more than $30 billion in the U.S. alone.
Zooming out, an approach that looks just at managing disease instead of preventing it isn’t viable in the long run. Even after the use of pesticides, farmers in the U.S. lose 37% of their crop and value to pests and disease, resulting in an economic loss of $122 billion per year.
The time is ripe to focus on true plant health by enabling our farmers and agriculture systems to produce healthier plants with a higher tolerance for disruption and a resistance to disease and pests.
Supporting nature and farmers is our best defence
Like humans, plants have immune systems. The stronger they are, the better they can weather stresses like changes in temperature, drought, fungal disease, pathogens or attacks from insects or weeds.
Simple practices such as no-till farming, crop rotation, crop diversity and rotational grazing 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 help plants combat pests naturally. Healthy soil, meanwhile, grows more nutritious plants and also acts as a powerful and beneficial carbon sink.
To be clear, the world’s farmers know the challenges and keys to crop health better than anyone. The question is: can we help them in their efforts? 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 vitality. 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.
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 who are so central in safeguarding our food supply.
If there is a silver lining to Covid-19, it’s that we’ve suddenly found 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’ve found ways of living in alignment with the planet instead of in isolation from it. We have a golden opportunity now to consider how we truly are what we eat and the global imperative to protect our food systems for the future.
More than ever, a healthy future for humans relies on healthy plants.
A version of this article was originally featured in Forbes.