A rare Wollemi Pine tree in a cage at Kew Gardens.
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What does Plants, People Planet mean?

EDIT: This post was written at the symposium as it happened. It has now been edited to correct some errors made while working rapidly, fix links, and add tweets from other people at the symposium.

I’m at Kew today for the first Plants, People, Plant symposium. PPP is the new Open Access journal from the New Phytologist trust, “which will focus on the interface between plants, society, and the environment, highlighting plants, and plant‐based research, in its broadest sense.” From my point of view, it’s interesting because it’s cross-disciplinary but still has a clear mission. In practical terms, it makes the journal a great venue for discussing plant matters beyond science rigorously.

Simon Hiscock opened the symposium, with a hello, and a bit more of an explanation of the journal. He highlighted the Societal Impact statements, brief statements that say why you should care about a particular paper. These short paragraphs say how the research will affect the world you live in. Paul Wilkin and Alexandre Antonelli followed up, both emphasising the importance of plants to human action. It’s a different focus to typical botany meetings where it’s all about the plants (or pathogens or pollinators etc…)

Video spun on to around where the sound starts.

The symposium has opened with a keynote lecture from Nicola Spence of DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural AffairsHow the global threat of pests and diseases impacts plants, people and the planet. These are the kind of problems that PPP has already been covering. Fogell and colleagues have discussed how two rapidly-evolving orchid viruses don’t seem to have undergone much change, since their first observation. If these viruses are pretty much the same everywhere, then infected orchids must be traded pretty rapidly. That’s a biosecurity problem.

Ignazio Graziosi and colleagues have shown that plant pests in Africa are now a continental emergency. That’s not only going to need a scientific solution, it’s going to need political cooperation to deploy them. Margulies and colleagues also see a policy problem with the illegal wildlife trade, but attribute the failure in policy to a social failure, plant blindness.

The combination of science, politics and social action is a problem Nicola Spence tackles. One example is her work on the strawberry disease, Colletotrichum acutatum, a fungal infection. There were a combination of problems, but one recurring issue was the repeated import of infected plants. In the paper, Calleja and colleagues say, “The effectiveness of phytosanitary procedures is limited when the sector is importing large numbers of plants from nurseries that have a track record of selling infested plant material, even if they are accompanied by a plant passport.” So there’s a need for combining all three approaches.

Spence said that there’s an unprecedented volume of plant trade and the UK is a net importer. One challenge is that there’s an increase in demand for mature trees. There’s all sorts of places for pathogens to hide. How do you search soil in volume for a few microbes? Firewood is another problem I hadn’t realised was a problem. Pests lodge in firewood, people take firewood when camping, and they like to go camping where the pest-borne diseases aren’t visible yet.

Some sources are unexpected to Nicola Spence, such as the haunted headboard. There was a mysterious sound that could not be located. Lots of people tried to work out what the problem was. When Spence’s team found it, she was able to diagnose the problem as larvae of Asian longhorn beetles. The wood from reputable manufacturers is hidden under upholstery and out of mind.

DEFRA has now set up the UK Plant Health Risk Register, following Ash dieback, of which more later in the meeting. They’ve registered over a thousand risks, but the rate of new risks is falling, so this suggests that the register is building a better picture of risks out there.

They’ve made estimates of the value of plant health to society, because money is a score society understand for importances. The estimates of the value at risk £9bn from maintaining healthy crops and forestry. £20bn in plants in food and drink. The asset value of trees and woods £175bn.

That sounds grim, “a cost of everything, but value of nothing” approach. But Spence has also said there are social impacts that are of value, even if they don’t get noticed. One example of many she gives is social prescription. Getting people out into nature can reduce stress, and there are knock-on effects on health and community.

Nicola Spence.

Urban cooling, a matter close to my heart over the past few weeks is another benefit she mentions. There might be more of this later on in the symposium too. I’ve looked through the poster abstracts this morning, and I’m slightly annoyed that I couldn’t find more time earlier. There are a few urban agriculture posters in there that I’d like to see.

Having set up the benefits, Nicola Spence, turned to problems, starting with ash dieback. It arrived earlier than thought. “Why didn’t we notice?” she asked. It says something about how we ‘manage’ woodland. Ash dieback could cost £16bn over 100 years, in terms of safety hazards need to fell trees and the loss of biodiversity. This is followed up with more on Emerald Ash Borer. Ash is having a terrible time, and Spence has said that we haven’t really valued Ash until we’re at risk of losing a lot of it.

With more threats, it risked becoming a depressing talk, but thankfully Spence highlighted action you can take. There are preventative adverts, but also participatory activities, including citizen science such the Observatree. They’ve also been at Chelsea with their Resilience garden, to raise awareness in a positive way.

You can follow Nicola Spence on Twitter @plantchief.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.


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