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Sylvain CharleboisEvery year, the United Nations promotes something that it believes warrants attention and it has declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health. Celebrating plant health and bringing more awareness to the issue is well worth pursuing.

Plants represent about 80 per cent of everything we eat. And animals raised on farms, of course, eat plants.

Most Canadians recognize how important plants are to global food systems but few would how vulnerable our plant-based ecosystem really is.

This year should highlight efforts to provide disease resistance for many crops around the world. Many vulnerable crops are grown in regions where plant science is underdeveloped.

In fact, diseases threaten foods most of us take for granted. Bananas, citrus, coffee and cocoa are all affected by climate change and relentless diseases. Since most of these crops are grown in impoverished regions where farming practices have hardly evolved over the last several decades, economic powerhouses like Canada should think about supporting production outside our borders.

Food consumption is more globalized than ever and many Canadians may be unaware of how lucky they are, having access to great food choices, year-round.

We are in an era of acute focus on climate change. The impact of weather on plant disease occurrence and development is critical for plants and deserves more support and attention.

Every day, Canadians pay for the impact of climate change on crops. We don’t know the extent to which food prices are affected but we know that the influence is real. Epidemics and climate events affected leafy greens and many other produce prices in 2019, and we expect more of the same in 2020.

The spread of disease and pests, and the introduction of new diseases in a changing climate is something all nations need to mitigate against.

And technological advancement hasn’t been idle. Despite significant challenges, modern civilization has seen a decent number of successes in plant science. Gene editing and genetic engineering are helping agriculture become more efficient and resilient. The use of phytobiomes, big data in agri-food and the use of precision agriculture are all making farming practices more sustainable. Geographic information systems (GIS) farming and robotic production should also be showcased this year.

Our growing rural-versus-urban divide is causing consumers who live in urban centres to be less knowledgeable and appreciative of what modern agriculture is all about. Recent advances are impressive and should be promoted for the betterment of society and for better policies.

But again, this is about equal access to technologies, data and knowledge across the entire globe.

At the epicentre of agricultural systems are plants. Plant health initiatives should focus on how we share our knowledge and expertise with other nations. Climate change knows no borders and neither should science. And when it comes to plant science, Canada is a force to be reckoned with.

It’s not the first time the UN has focused its energy on plants – 2016 was the International Year of Pulses. For 12 months, pulses were heavily promoted. As one the world’s largest producers and exporters of pulses, Canada benefited from their rise to stardom.

A few years later, food policies around the world encourage citizens to consume pulses as much as possible. As a result, more people know what pulses are and include them in their diets. Most would agree that the UN’s choice to promote pulses was as appropriate as it was needed, and it was successful.

But a simple declaration is typically not enough. We should be constantly reminded of what’s at stake with the health of plants.

The year 2019 was dedicated to the periodic table of chemical elements. Most would agree there wasn’t much fanfare about the table in the last 12 months. Other than acknowledging its existence, there wasn’t much promotion of a table that’s been in our classrooms and labs for decades. As a result, we barely heard about it.

But picking plant health as a theme has great potential – if the work is put in.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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