Timing is good for UN’s International Year of Plant Health

Next year is the International Year of Plant Health — so says the United Nations, which is fond of dedicating years to causes.

Previous “year-of” declarations have included Year of the Family (1994), Year of the Ocean (1998), Year for Culture and Peace (2000), Year of Freshwater (2003) and Year of Natural Fibres (2009).

Remember those?

If you do, well done.

The global aspect of these initiatives means so many different cultural and political perspectives must be taken into consideration that activities can morph into milquetoast.

It is estimated that up to 40 percent of food crops worldwide are lost each year due to pests, costing US$220 billion annually due to plant diseases and $70 billion due to pests.

The supporting document for the “year-of” declaration says improved plant health can have a major impact on nutrition, especially in low-income countries, through:

  • Improving food security by slowing the spread of pests into new areas and addressing pests that are destroying food crops.
  • Addressing poverty — the Earth’s real scourge — because for most developing countries, agriculture is the primary source of income.
  • Protecting the environment and human health by preserving species in given ecosystems and curbing the use of pesticides.
  • Supporting economic development by harmonizing science-based plant-health standards, which, in turn, can facilitate more trade in agriculture, which is responsible for about one-third of global trade.

That last goal alone is a worthy initiative. However, if one pauses for a moment to imagine the effort it would take to harmonize plant health standards among, say, Vietnam, Italy, Canada and China, the considerable challenge of that initiative becomes apparent. Pesticide use and genetically modified food don’t make friends easily.

Still, the timing is good. We know that diets are being pushed toward more plant protein, and that can only happen with an accessible supply of healthy crops — locally or through trade.

The emphasis will be integrated pest management, a framework that generally means do no harm (or as little harm as possible) while controlling pests. That will have different meanings in different climates and political regimes.

There is so much to consider.

The effects of climate change alone on plant health could be a special UN year.

One credible analysis of the effect on the Prairies concludes the region could end up with a more arid climate, similar to Montana and Wyoming, by 2050. It’s thought that wheat would do well in such a scenario, but barley would decline, pulse crops could expand — if the market withstands it — and canola would move north, away from warmer temperatures.

And while we may get a longer growing season, the expected increased volatility in weather would limit yield gains.

The Prairies could see a temperature increase of 3.4 C instead of the planet’s expected average increase of 2 C.

That means the West could see almost two months of 30 C each year, rather than the current two weeks.

But that isn’t all.

The UN’s 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition says climate related disasters — including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms — have doubled since the early 1990s, so the Prairies alone could well face a new set of problems despite the longer growing season.

How do we deal with all that while learning new techniques, possibly growing different crops?

New genetically modified varieties could help, but the UN appears to be lukewarm at best on GMOs. The Committee for Food Security, which reports to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, says the potential of GMOs is being undermined by excessive use of pesticides, which creates more weed resistance.

Perhaps then we need an International Year of Proper Pesticide Use rather than a retreat from genetically modified food.

The International Year of Plant Health has an ambitious agenda. It comes at a good time, so long as politics don’t get in the way.

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