International Day of Plant Health more pertinent than ever

11 May 2022

Tomorrow, Thursday 12 May 2022, is the very first International Day of Plant Health. Initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) off the back of the International Year of Plant Health, the day recognises the vital role that healthy plants play in keeping people and the planet healthy.

Healthy plants, healthy food, healthy people, healthy climate.

Without healthy plants, there will not be healthy food. And access to fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables is essential for healthy people. What often gets forgotten is the vital role that the people who grow fruit and vegetables play in ensuring fresh fruit and vegetables are on the table. Fruit and vegetable growers exercise kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of their crops, doing everything they can to keep the plants healthy to produce the highest quality produce possible.

As well as being great for people’s health, fruit and vegetable crops are also good for the environment. Growing more fruit and vegetables in our country was identified by the Climate Change Commission as key to reducing New Zealand’s emissions. These reductions largely come from a proposal to transition dairy and agricultural production to vegetable and fruit crops. Growing demand worldwide for a more plant-based diet will also provide an additional incentive as more consumers become aware of the emission footprint of their food.

The biggest reminder of the International Day of Plant Health is that plants are under constant threat from pests and diseases. As we’ve most recently experienced with fall armyworm being detected across the North Island, we all need to remain vigilant. Key to successfully reducing the impact of a new pest is early detection and awareness of what to look out for. Reporting something that does not look right to MPI’s Biosecurity Hotline or using tools like Find-a-Pest are essential to being able to identify issues early. For fall armyworm, all growers (particularly in the upper North Island) need to keep their eyes peeled, and become familiar with how to identify the moth.

As the climate warms, more pests will find our climate suitable, potentially increasing the risk to more plant crops. Fall armyworm is a great example of this. The moth prefers to live in warmer climates, meaning the area most at-risk to this pest is the upper North Island, with very low risk to the South Island. As the climate warms however, the South Island will become more at risk.

Our biosecurity system is world class, but all growers and New Zealanders have a role to play. As our border opens up, and more people travel, the risk of an unwanted hitchhiker pest increases. If you or someone you know is travelling, make sure to check your boots and bags and fill out your declaration card properly. We all have a part to play.

One thing that will surely help is Whanganui MP, Steph Lewis’s piece of legislation to provide better biosecurity information for incoming travellers. This is a great initiative that HortNZ has supported as it will help educate incoming travellers of the importance of biosecurity for protecting the health of our plants and animals.

There are several reasons to reflect on plant health for the very first International Day of Plant Health, but I think the most important is stated on the FAO website. “Healthy plants can help to end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.” Indeed, the New Zealand fruit and vegetable industry has an important contribution to make towards this. Our industry feeds consumers domestically and abroad, employs an estimated 60,000 people, and contributes more billions to the New Zealand economy each year.