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It’s British Science Week (6-15 March 2020) and people all over the country are exploring science, technology, engineering and maths.

11th March 2020

It’s British Science Week and people all over the country are exploring science, technology, engineering and maths. Central to this year’s initiative, run by the British Science Association, is a Citizen Science Project to spot Spider Monkeys in video footage.

Why Spider Monkeys? Apart from their cute fluffy faces and long hairy limbs, Spider Monkeys represent a long-lived rainforest species with a relatively slow generation time (one baby monkey every three years per female). They are particularly vulnerable to deforestation due to their dependence on dense rainforest as protection and sustenance, and are key to the forest environment through their digestion of tree fruits and dispersal of seeds.

Spider Monkeys will engage thousands of people to the concept of environmental monitoring through keystone species and the threat that products like palm oil pose to equatorial rainforests. Yet, are we priming the next generation for yet more “plant blindness”? Kew Gardens’ Dr. Carly Cowell discusses ‘our inability to recognise plants as wildlife’ in her blog and the impact that our general underappreciation of plants is having on global plant research.

In the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH), we are tackling this underappreciation for plants and exposing the growing threat of plant extinctions. Plants are vital to our survival, making up 80% of the food that we eat and 98% of the Oxygen we breathe. Plants are under threat from climate change impact, expansion of human population, increased globalisation and land-use change. Dr. Cowell’s article references a recent review exposing “plant blindness” and suggesting that plants are often overlooked e.g. in Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) policy and research.

“More plant species go extinct annually than animals and more plants are listed on CITES (30, 000 plants vs 5,000 animals) as threatened by illegal trade but plants are not recognised in IWT interventions.”

“Illegal plant trade has a higher economic value than illegal animal trade and the damage done by illegal harvesters (poachers) in the wild can destroy whole ecosystems, costing millions to repair if at all.”

As global greenhouse gases have increased in the last few decades, plants have been observed to grow ever more rapidly, creating a Carbon storage or ‘sink’ effect. Coined the ‘greening’ effect. In metabolising atmospheric Carbon, plant-life ‘fixes’ it to the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, observed as greater leaf, stem and root growth. This process in turn fertilises the Nitrogen and Water cycles through the many organisms that live in and around plants.

While Plants are part of the answer in combating climate change, conflictingly, climate change is negatively impacting tree health across the world. In the last month, just a selection of news articles highlighted widespread death of millions of trees. Wildfires have raged in California and Indonesia. Australia is the latest focus for Climate Conflict where forest fires have levelled 27 Million Acres of trees (England’s land mass being 32 Million Acres), and even forests untouched by fire are browning under the climate stresses resulting for summer droughts and extreme temperatures.

At the BSPP we are focussing on the drivers that impact plant health. Many emerging plant diseases are exacerbated by environmental stressors – soil nutrient depletion, elevated temperatures, aridity, flooding, changes in season, loss of pollinators, introduction of novel species. A recent review in one of our journals, Plant Pathology (69 (2), 179-193), highlights the huge amounts of research into plant disease and climate change. The impact that increased temperatures have on the efficacy of fungicides, the challenges of predicting disease outbreaks with shifts in weather systems and patterns.

Throughout IYPH we will be highlighting plant pathology research: sharing the opinions and expertise of our board and members, following new advances and promoting plant disease in a changing world at big events, like our two conferences ‘Our Plants, Our Future’, ‘Protecting Plants, Protecting Life’ and the RHS Chelsea Flower show in London. Watch this space for more news and announcements.

Finally, World Wildlife Day is celebrated this year under the theme “Sustaining all Life on Earth”, highlighting the unique place of wild fauna and flora as essential components of the world’s biodiversity, as well as a key pillar of livelihoods for people, particularly among communities that live close to nature. The events also came as part of what has been dubbed the ‘biodiversity super year’