Plants: you owe them your life

Protecting plants is vital for the future of our planet – that’s why 2020 is the International Year of Plant Health

Plants don’t just look pretty – they are the source of 98 percent of the air we breathe and 80 percent of the food we eat. ©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri


Plants aren’t just a nice addition to your windowsill: they are the source of 98 percent of the air we breathe and 80 percent of the food we eat. Sadly, we often forget how much we owe them. Neglecting plant health can have devastating results, not just for plants themselves, but also for humans and our environment.   

Climate change and human activities have altered ecosystems, creating new niches where pests and diseases can thrive. At the same time, the value of international trade in agricultural products has almost tripled in the last decade, consequently increasing the risk of pest and disease outbreaks. All of this can seriously damage agriculture – jeopardizing livelihoods and leaving millions of people without enough food to eat.

Keeping plants healthy is of paramount importance, and everyone has a role to play. Whether you are a farmer, government legislator or a holidaymaker, here are some of the ways you can help:

1. Don’t take plants along for the ride

It’s tempting to bring home that exotic flower from your travels, but foreign plants can carry unseen pests and diseases. Every year, up to 40 percent of global food crops are lost to plant pests and diseases, leading to  annual agricultural trade losses of over USD 220 billion. As with human health, prevention is key. When travelling to and from other countries, refrain from bringing plants and plant products (such as fresh fruits, herbs, etc.) with you to ensure that foreign pests and diseases are not accidentally introduced to your country.

You should also be careful when ordering plants and plant products online or through postal services because packages can easily bypass the regular phytosanitary controls that are vital for keeping our agricultural industries safe from external threats. The mobility of the plants and plant products is subject to International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures, so you want to make sure the company you order from is following these standards.

Many people around the world depend on plants to make a living. Left: ©FAO/Luis Tato Right: ©FAO/Jon Spaull

2. Trade safely and according to international standards

Many countries depend on trading plants and plant products to sustain their economies. In fact, the annual trade value of agricultural products now USD 1.7 trillion! Yet, trade can quickly spread plant pests and diseases and seriously damage native plants and biodiversity. Government representatives and policymakers should ensure that they have implemented the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) standards. Signed by 184 contracting parties, the IPPC is a global treaty that provides an international framework for protecting plant resources from pests and diseases and promoting safe trade among all countries.

Anyone in the transportation and trade sectors can practise safe trading too. Ensure that your business enforces existing phytosanitary legislation and look into adopting innovative technologies such as electronic phytosanitary certification (ePhyto) when importing or exporting plants and plant products. Makes sure that your clients are aware of the risks associated with taking plants and plant products across borders and are up to speed on the best practices to follow.

3. Promote and adopt more sustainable pest and disease control solutions

Plant pests and diseases are one of the main reasons behind biodiversity loss and poor plant health. They are responsible for USD 220 billion in crop value loss. However, we need to deal with pests and diseases in environmentally friendly ways and minimise the use of hazardous pesticides. Pesticides can kill pollinators and beneficial insects, which are natural pest enemies and crucial for a healthy environment. This is important information not only for farmers but also for policymakers who should be encouraging the use of sustainable alternatives, wherever available.

More sustainable solutions are the heart of Integrated Pest Management, an ecosystem-based approach that focuses on long-term prevention through a combination of techniques such as biological control, biopesticides, intercropping, physical barriers such as tree cover, insect nets and good airflow, and the use of pest or disease-resistant seed varieties.

Citizens can support plant health by buying produce from farms that use ecological approaches for pest control, including biological fertilizers and biopesticides.

Insect nets can be used as a natural solution in preventing pests and diseases from harming plants. ©Lam Van Linh/

4. Use pest-free and disease-free planting materials

A sustainable and environmentally friendly way of keeping plants healthy is to use pest-free and disease-free planting materials and checking plants for pests and diseases before reproducing them. Farmers should avoid monoculture systems whenever possible and use more sustainable systems such as crop rotation methods that favour biodiversity and suppress the accumulation of pests and pathogens.

2020, the International Year of Plant Health

The next months are an important opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment and inspire everyone to take concrete action.

Keeping our plants healthy is vital to achieving not just Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 – Zero Hunger – but all of the other Sustainable Development Goals too. Make this the year that you take action and get involved.

Learn more

9. Industry innovation and infrastructure, 12. Responsible consumption and production, 15. Life on land, 17. Partnership for the goals