Talking plant health with our advocates

We speak to our International Year of Plant Health advocates Monty Don, Diarmuid Gavin and Rodrigo Pacheco to discuss why plant health is so important

Plants are largely responsible for the air we breathe and the food we eat. Their health is linked to ours. ©FAO/Varun Chaudhary


Human beings owe plants a lot. Plants make up 80 percent of the food we eat and produce 98 percent of the oxygen that we breathe. However, they are increasingly under threat. Climate change and human activities have altered ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and creating new niches where pests can thrive. At the same time, international travel and trade has grown and pests and diseases have spread around the world, causing great damage to native plants and local environments.

Plants are often taken for granted, but their health is linked to ours – that’s why the United Nations has declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH). Our three IYPH advocates, Monty Don, Diarmuid Gavin and Rodrigo Pacheco, tell us why they feel Plant Health is important to their work and passions.

So, what do we mean by plant health?

Essentially, plant health means making sure plants are protected from disease and pests and can sustainably thrive in their natural habitats. Monty Don, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s leading garden writer, broadcaster and FAO’s new IYPH Goodwill Ambassador for Europe, believes a healthy plant is one that “is able to sustain itself throughout its life — which might be a few months, or thousands of years for some trees — produce seeds and live healthily,” Monty says. “What is important is that we build up a kind of resistance and adaptability in plant production that is sustainable.”

Sustainability is necessary to protect our natural resources for the future, and Monty is right: it is key to ensuring plant health too. Unfortunately, we have not always looked after plants with their long-term health in mind. Preventing the introduction and spread of plant pests and diseases is far more efficient and cost effective than dealing with outright plant health outbreaks. Once they have established themselves, plant pests and diseases are often impossible to eradicate. An important part of sustainability is stopping problems before they start — for example by curbing illegal trade or transport of plants, growing plants in an environmentally friendly way or ensuring healthy plants are certified — rather than by relying on chemicals for their treatment.

When Irish garden designer, television personality and FAO champion of the IYPH, Diarmuid Gavin, began his career, he worked in a plant shop. There he was struck by the sheer number of chemicals that were sold. Similarly, when he went on to study at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, chemical ‘treatments’ were a large part of the curriculum. He was appalled. How could the regular use of such harsh chemicals be conducive to growing healthy, sustainable plants?

In fact, after many years of excessive use of chemicals in gardening and farming, it has become clear that it is not a sustainable way to treat our precious plant resources. It has left damaged soils and altered ecosystems. Instead, it’s time to take a more environmentally and socially sensitive approach to farming and growing that focuses not only on production but also on ecological health.

For Monty Don (Left) and Diarmuid Gavin (Right), it is all connected. We need our attitudes towards food and consumption to match with how we care for our plants. Left/top: ©Marsha Arnold Right/Bottom: ©FAO

So why should you care?

It’s pretty simple: the healthier plants are, the healthier we are too. Not only are plants a vital part of natural ecosystems and a source of oxygen, they also make up most of the food we eat. According to Monty, plant health starts with “making sure that plants are sustainable at source.”

Some of the biggest risks to plant health are caused by food production. For example, chemical fertilisers and pesticides are often used in commercial farming to provoke rapid growth and large yields.

Protecting plant health means taking a more holistic approach to food production, incorporating agroecological principles.

“All the things we consume in our gardens and in our kitchens … there is a thread connecting it all. It is all about our attitude.” Monty says. “It’s about health of plants, but it’s about how we think about health of plants that is as important as anything else.”

Diarmuid agrees, “We need to look after our plants in a way that’s more in tune with everything else that lives on our planet.”

Another person who understands the importance of this is Rodrigo Pacheco, celebrated Ecuadorian chef and FAO’s IYPH Goodwill Ambassador in Latin America.  A passionate devotee of sustainable, regenerative gastronomy, he is well-known for taking action to restore ecosystems, promote agro-biodiversity and protect plant health in his country. In his restaurant, he makes sure to only use ingredients from local farmers, fishers and gatherers. Pacheco's aim is to tie his meals to ancestral culinary culture and connect with the origins of the products used, drawing awareness to the importance of sustainable grown plants, fruits and vegetables.

We are what we eat. For Chef Rodrigo Pacheco, this is why it is important to make sure plants are grown sustainably. ©Joshua Degel

What can you do to help?

There are many ways in which we can protect plant health, both at home, in our own gardens and at a commercial level. For example, we can use planting methods that reduce pests naturally and therefore minimise the use of pesticides. We can use our power as consumers to buy sustainably farmed plants and produce. When we travel, we must be vigilant about what we bring back – exotic plants risk bringing back pests or diseases too. People in the transportation industries need to make sure that ships, airplanes, trucks and trains don’t introduce plant pests and diseases into new areas, through the use of phytosanitary certification.

One thing we can all do is get involved and spread the word.  IYPH advocates Rodrigo, Monty and Diarmuid will all be doing just that, using their online influence to stress the importance of this topic.

“That’s the brilliant thing about social media – everyone has a voice. And everyone can connect,” says Diarmuid. He is absolutely right. Everyone has a part to play, and the International Year of Plant Health is the best time for everyone to use their voices and stand up for plant health.

Learn more

3. Good health and well-being, 12. Responsible consumption and production, 15. Life on land