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Come together: why isn’t One Health more concerned about plant health asks Eric Boa

24th April 2020

I’ve been intrigued by the number of professors of global (public) health who’ve appeared recently in the media, offering their tuppence worth on the coronavirus pandemic. They join a panoply of experts on human health, including chief public health officers, all doing their best to explain how to cope with the current crisis (and hoping no one notices them going on long car journeys – oops). Human health has an impressive array of disciplines, themes and specialisms covering all aspects of healthcare, science, policy and beyond. There are 24 Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties, including separate Royal Colleges of physicians and surgeons for Scotland, England and Ireland, responsible for training, professional standards and representing their members’ interests. I’ve just discovered jobs for consultants in forensic psychiatry, uroradiology and hepatology.

Medical research is equally diverse and extensive. Think tanks mull over how to fund healthcare. There are swarms of people analysing metadata analysis, looking for trends and tracking, for example, the successes and failures of policies, measurement of impact and the effectiveness of different treatments. It’s obvious why we care so much about human health. We are number one priority. Hence the fiery debates about the NHS, medical insurance in the US and the shocking yet avoidable loss of life worldwide due to poor healthcare.

Animal health also receives a lot of attention and funding on ways and means to safeguard valuable livestock, protect our pets and keep racehorses fit for racing. What would happen if you combined animal and human health in some way? The explosion in importance and impact of zoonoses over recent decades has strengthened ties between animal and human health, mainly through research on common pathogens, but also on joint delivery of health services. Initiatives such as One Health and Ecohealth have stimulated wider thinking on combined approaches to animal and human health. The bandwagon grows and grows and the number of chairs and academic research posts in One Health continues to rise.

Where does plant health sit in all this? Good question. As part of One Health and its offshoots, hardly at all. Plant health doesn’t really get a proper mention. It’s buried away within ‘environment’ and ‘ecosystems’. It seems that our arguments for the importance and primacy of plant pests and diseases – no plants, no food, no life as we know it – have not been heard. Or, even worse, ignored. The 2023 International Conference on Plant Pathology in France has adopted the theme of One Health. I hope they get a strong representation of human and animal health scientists and practitioners, but I’m not particularly optimistic. Otherwise it will be hopeful plant pathologists talking amongst themselves, and mainly about science and research, not about service delivery or public (plant) health policies

My pessimism is based on repeated attempts to engage with colleagues from human health and talk about primary healthcare, running diagnostic services and other areas where we could share lessons and ideas. I’ve certainly learnt a lot from ideas emerging from human health. There’s some crossover in science, developing new diagnostic procedures and protocols for example, but it’s informal and inconsistent. The Royal College of Pathologists sounded like a good place to start. They already address human and animal pathologists so I thought why not us lot? I raised this possibility as a spouse + 1 at a RCPath social event and got a bemused look from the President. I tried again more recently with committee members; still no response.

There are a number of valiant souls doing their best to change this, arguing for a stronger presence of plant health within One Health. There are key areas of shared interest where an active exchange of ideas would benefit not only plant health professionals but, I humbly suggest, counterparts in human and animal health. Plant health is weak in metadata studies, but we have got disease modellers, such as current Board member Nik Cunniffe, and plant health analysts, such as Dan Bebber, doing predictive work, analysing trends and so on. There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience residing in CABI on delivery of advisory and diagnostic services around the world. Sol Danielsen continues to fly the flag for cross-sectoral collaborations along with another good colleague, Esther Schelling from animal health. Maybe there’s hope yet. Keep up the good work ladies.