protect plants

Plants are life – we depend on them for 80 percent of the food we eat and 98 percent of the oxygen we breathe. But international travel and trade has been associated with the introduction and spread of plant pests. Invasive pest species are one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss and threaten the delicate web of life that sustains our planet. Pests and diseases have also been associated with rising temperatures which create new niches for pests to populate and spread. In response, the use of pesticides could increase, which harms pollinators, natural pest enemies and organisms crucial for a healthy environment. Protecting plant health is essential by promoting environmentally friendly practices such as integrated pest management. International standards for phytosanitary measures (ISPMs) in trade also help prevent the introduction and spread of plant pests across borders.

The International Day of Plant Health 2023 calls on everyone to raise awareness and take action to keep our plants healthy and help protect the environment and biodiversity.

UN focus on plant health, crucial for boosting food security worldwide

Plants under threat

Healthy plants have the power to help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development. But even though plants make up 80 per cent of the food we eat, and provide 98 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, threats to their survival in many cases, are piling up.

According to recent data, up to 40 per cent of food crops are lost due to plant pests and diseases every year, and this affects both food security and agriculture, the main source of income for vulnerable rural communities.

Climate change and human activities are also altering ecosystems and damaging biodiversity while creating new niches for pests to thrive in.

Furthermore, FAO says that protecting plants from pests and diseases is far more cost effective than dealing with plant health emergencies. That is because once established, plant pests and diseases are often difficult to eradicate, and need to be controlled through sustainable pest and pesticides management.

On the first International Day of Plant Health, in May 2022, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, stated;

“We need to continue raising the global profile of plant health to transform agrifood systems to be more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable.

The protection of plants is essential for people and for the planet, and that is why the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has mapped several priorities for plant health, coinciding with the inaugural Day.

Focusing on sustainable pest management and pesticides through promotion of green and digital plant protection; and creating enabling surroundings for plant health by enhancing the health of soils, seeds, and pollinators, are among the main priorities.

FAO is calling on governments to prioritize plant health and its sustainable management in formulating policies and legislation, and on academia and research institutions to deliver science-based solutions.

Houseplants: to support human health

As well as looking good, houseplants support human health in homes, offices, school and hospitals. Research suggests that the greatest benefits of indoor plants are through wellbeing and productivity improvement. There is discussion around their influence on indoor air quality. Detail on the number of plants required is being researched.

Can growing houseplants really help turn our homes, schools and workplaces into better places to be? It is a question that numerous scientific studies have explored and results are now shedding light on the matter. Indoor plants offer two potential benefits for us: improved psychological (mental) well-being and improved physical human health (i.e. they support fitness and general health).

The psychological benefits of indoor plants have been shown as:

  • An improved mood
  • Reduced stress levels
  • Increased worker productivity (adding plants to office environments in particular)
  • Increased speed of reaction in a computer task
  • Improved attention span (in some scientific studies, but not all)
  • Increased pain tolerance (for example, where plants were used in hospital settings)

The physical health benefits of indoor plants have been shown as:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced fatigue and headaches by 20-25 percent in one study
  • Patients in hospital rooms with plants reported decreased post-operative pain

It is worth noting that the effect of plant species and cultivar differences has not been specifically investigated.

Are there any side effects for occupants to being exposed to indoor plants? Encouragingly, the presence of plants had very few negative effects when studies – i.e. very low level of reported skin or respiratory irritation. Also night-time release of carbon dioxide by houseplants is unlikely to be a problem, as emission levels are very low.

Indoor plants and air quality

Data suggest that every year over 4 million people worldwide die prematurely due to indoor air pollution. Pollution levels are often higher indoors than outdoors as indoor air represents a mix of:

  • Outdoor-derived compounds such as nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and particulates (dust-like particles)
  • Indoor-derived contaminants, predominantly Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC). VOCs are a large group of substances (including toluene, xylene, benzene etc.) which are emitted from furnishings, detergents, paints etc. and can have adverse health effects on humans. Additionally bio-aerosols (i.e. fungal spores and bacteria) can add to indoor pollution

All containments contribute to the so called Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). Symptoms associated with SBS include: eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; fatigue and irritability; chest tightness and wheezing; and skin dryness / irritation.

Opening the windows and naturally ventilating our indoor spaces can remedy some of these problems. However, during winter months VOC concentrations indoors have been found to be at their highest, because air exchange rates are reduced (i.e. the windows/doors aren’t opened so much). People also spend more time inside during colder weather outdoors, therefore exposure is raised.

Plant species and cultivars differ in the rate of removal of these chemical compounds. Recent research also suggests significant numbers of plants may be needed as well as additional light to get this benefit. Likewise, growing media used for plants can also significantly affect the rate of VOC uptake, with soil-based systems typically being superior to hydroponics.

How do I get the benefits from plants?

Based on the research, several approaches should be considered to get the benefits.

  1. Rooms which look out on nature (including parks, gardens and wild spaces) have a head start as seeing this can provide psychological support.
  2. Rooms with views of largely urban landscapes, would benefit most from including plants.
  3. Regardless of the type of indoor space, including the right plants has the potential to boost health benefits.

Ficus elastica (India rubber tree, rubber plant), has the potential to reduce VOCs, such as Benzene and formaldehyde.


Why are trees important for biodiversity? Woodland

The UK’s woodland is home to a wealth of wildlife, from shade-loving plants and delicate fungi, to nesting birds, elusive mammals and rare insects. Ancient woodland in particular supports more species than any other land-based habitat in the UK.

But woodland cover in the UK is one of the lowest in Europe, and as a country we need to do more to increase it to help meet the needs of our wildlife. If we don’t protect what we have left and work to create woodlands of the future, we stand to lose more than just trees.

1/3 in decline

One third of all woodland species are in decline.

1 in 10 at risk

One in 10 woodland wildlife species are at risk of extinction.

What is biodiversity and why is it important?

In its broadest sense, biodiversity is the term used to describe all life on Earth, in all its variety.

In any patch of woodland, fen, grassland or other habitat, there are more organisms – living things both large and microscopically small – present and interacting than you could count.

The greater the range and number of these plant, fungi, microbe and animal species – or the more biodiverse an area is – the healthier an area’s ecosystem is considered to be. This is because a more robust and complex habitat can provide the different conditions to suit the special needs of a variety of species.

Safeguarding against disaster

Having plenty of species present also reduces the chance that pests, diseases, natural disasters and other threats can make a drastic impact on a habitat or area.

Take the current loss we face from the threat of ash dieback: we are set to lose around 80% of ash trees in the UK, and this will have a devastating impact on the landscape and the species that rely on the tree. To mitigate some of the damage, you’d need other species of tree not impacted by the disease to replace the role of ash in the ecosystem.

Providing for people

Biodiversity is critical to our lives, too. Species, and the ecosystems they form, make all aspects of human life possible. We depend on the natural services healthy ecosystems provide for every breath of air and every mouthful of food. Our whole society and agricultural system relies on the biodiversity of pollinators, soil organisms, natural predators of crop pests and many more.

Trees and woodland ecosystems in particular provide clean air, offer protection from flooding, and store carbon – vital if we’re to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown. In Great Britain, the value of trees alone for flood protection is estimated to be £6.5 billion.

Biodiversity also enriches our lives. We value the chance to get close to nature, and there’s a growing mountain of evidence to show that green spaces are good for our mental and physical well being.

Did you know?

In England, native woods and trees support a fifth of the UK’s Priority Species for conservation.


What does biodiversity look like in the UK?

Biodiversity peaks around the equator. We’re pretty far away from that here in the UK, but our landscapes still buzz with life. Rare and biodiverse habitats are dotted across the landscape, from Caledonian pinewoodAtlantic rainforest and other kinds of ancient woodland, to fens, moorland and undisturbed grassland.

The UK is home to thousands of plants, animals and other living things, including:

  • 2,400 flowering plant and fern species
  • more than 600 birds
  • 1,800 types of fungi
  • 7,000 species of fly alone.

And new species of invertebrates are still being discovered and described in the UK all the time, just as they are in equatorial rainforests across the globe.

Specialist species are under threat

Some plants and animals are able to move between habitats and can survive in a number of conditions. Hedgehogs and foxes for example can adapt well to urban environments.

But species like the dormouse rely on the unique environments found in ancient woodland. A number of beetles, such as the incredibly rare violet click beetle, also need the deadwood of ancient trees in order to complete their lifecycle.

This means that the kind of woodland habitat we protect and create in the UK is important. Non-native woodland plantations can store carbon, but they don’t support as many native species of wildlife.

Did you know?

Oak trees alone support 2,300 species – 326 of which are entirely dependent on oak for their survival.

Deforestation- the hidden cost of burgers

Habitat conversion, commonly referred to as deforestation, lies at the crux of what is shaping the future of the Amazon Biome.

Extensive cattle ranching is the number one culprit of deforestation in virtually every Amazon country, and it accounts for 80% of current deforestation (Nepstad et al. 2008). Alone, the deforestation caused by cattle ranching is responsible for the release of 340 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, equivalent to 3.4% of current global emissions. Beyond forest conversion, cattle pastures increase the risk of fire and are a significant degrader of riparian and aquatic ecosystems, causing soil erosion, river siltation and contamination with organic matter. Trends indicate that livestock production is expanding in the Amazon.

Brazil has 88% of the Amazon herd, followed by Peru and Bolivia. While grazing densities vary among livestock production systems and countries, extensive, low productivity, systems with less thanone animal unit per hectare of pasture are the dominant form of cattle ranching in the Amazon.

Good News: Plants talk, and now we’re listening – readers

A new study shows evidence that plants talk, particularly when under stress

Scientists at Tel Aviv University have conducted a six-year experiment, proving that plants emit an ultrasonic noise in certain stressful situations.

Inaudible to human ears, the plants emit a high frequency clicking sound, and when starved of water, or damaged, the clicks become far more regular. The plants also made different sounds, depending on whether they were thirsty or injured. “Each plant and each type of stress is associated with a specific identifiable sound,” said Professor Lilach Hadany, who lead the research study.

Click on the video link to find out more about this study


What do plants need to grow?

Leeds-based charity Energy Heroes provides a KS1/LKS2 resource to help support Primary School teachers.

This resource ties in with the National Curriculum Science themes of Habitats and Living Things and can be linked with the effect of climate change on plants in different parts of the world. In this resource pack, Energy Heroes provides a full differentiated lesson plan, an accompanying PowerPoint presentation, example investigation recording sheets and an SEN/EAL Vocabulary mat.

Click here to find out more about the Energy Heroes programme.

Click here to download the free resource.

Click here to find out about a free visit to your school from the Energy Heroes team.