Plant Health Week shares the incredible world of plants and how plant health underpins our health.
Plants provide 98% of the air that we breathe
From the earliest bacterial life forms and the evolution of photosynthesis: the progressions of plants from cyanobacteria to early land plants, trees, flowers and grasses have created the balance of gases in the air around us. Our world now is the result of thousands of millions of years of evolutions and extinctions. Quite simply, without the photosynthetic process (splitting carbon dioxide to carbon and oxygen using light energy from the sun), the air we breathe now would not contain 21% Oxygen needed to sustain life.
1 in 5 of the world’s plants are thought to be at risk of extinction. “75% of the world’s surface has been changed, a lot of it to feed one species – humans” (BBC “Extinction”). Since 1970, there has been a 70% increase in numbers of invasive alien species across 21 countries with detailed records. Amidst this crisis, the UN have chosen to highlight the primary producers of our green planet. Plants are 80% of the world’s biomass, underpinning vast food webs that sustain us. 40% of the plants we grow as food crops can be damaged by pests and diseases. Understanding these losses and conserving the landmass we use to cultivate crops is key to protecting our greater ecosystem.
Society needs to adapt to the challenges posed by increasing levels of global consumption. As highlighted by Josephine Maidment at the BSPP Outreach Workshop last week – 76% of the UK population are estimated to be disconnected or switched-off from science.
Science is everything from our breakfast in the morning, to the moment we turn on the ignition of the car, to the stars in the night sky and yet only a minority of people admit to being interested or knowing about it. Everyone would benefit from a greater understanding of science, not least the discovery and joy of plants and the dynamic ecosystem they inhabit.
Outreach initiatives are part of the solution to sharing science knowledge and interest. Through the BSPP Outreach Workshop we hope to build on networks and expand the number of people motivated by plant health. Building on past BSPP outreach and current initiatives like the Plant Defenders badges created by Luca Steel with Girlguiding.
In the year of Plant health, this initiative is global. To engage children in the fascination of plants, UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) have produced a downloadable book in several languages, promoted drawing and photography competitions to encourage exploration of plant health, and created compelling videos to inform and inspire.
Connected Virus, who share knowledge of plant viruses and their insect vectors have also shared a video communicating the dynamics of crop viruses and plant health and are holding their first virtual conference this week.
Today, the UK government releases a free downloadable children’s book following the adventures of Izzy the Inspector. Aimed to inspire and educate children from 6 to 11 years, Izzy the Inspector tells you why plants are important, how they are under attack and how you can learn to protect them through a number of activities. Later in the week, videos and blogs will give more insight into the Life of a Real Plant Inspector.
The UKRI has been promoting artwork commissioned for key plants every month this year from potatoes to rice and highlighting the science behind plant health on their website. Key influencers in the plant health world include the UK plant chief and BSSP President Nicola Spence.
In our first webinar, the BSPP will explore the dynamics of biocontrol systems with President Elect, Professor David Collinge and a panel of experts. Biocontrol highlights the complexity of plant life. Plants grow in combination with every kingdom on earth from viruses to animals, from the soil to the air. As technology progresses, we are able to sequence whole genomes in less than a day and discover the signatures of new species through their genetic footprint. We are living in a time when sequencing of DNA and RNA can expose the dynamics of whole worlds inside plants. We are learning how bacteria, fungi and viruses interact with plants across the root and inside the leaf.
In the same way that rainforests sustain an ecosystem of individuals from nematode worms to tigers, the spaces on and inside plants hosts a range of micro-organisms. Some can only survive inside the plant, some travel from insect-to-plant-to-insect and some exist in almost every environment – adapting and changing their lifestyle from soil to root to leaf to air. The disease that we see on the plant leaf might be a switch in balance from: healthy plant tissue hosting bacteria and fungus, to the swift colonisation by an aggressive fungus, killing everything in its path. Biocontrol highlights living organisms that outcompete or challenge these aggressors and promote plant health. The panel will discuss the future for disease control, taking into consideration the dynamics of living systems alongside sustainable agriculture.
The greatest way to share science is to allow everyone to engage in it. By being part of the excitement of first discovery, every participant citizen can learn and be inspired by science. On Saturday, The Tree Council will open up their conference celebrating 30 years of Tree Wardening in conjunction with Forest Research and Observatree who collect data from the public on huge amounts of tree diseases. Highlighting the way that citizen science can shape our understanding of the world of plant health and share the joy of learning to inspire new plant scientists of the future.