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Our industry has embraced every tool available in communicating our messages to those outside the
agri-food sector. Social media channels such as Twitter (check me out @DeanALES_UofA) give farmers a direct line to global consumers.

One remarkable messaging success saw the United Nations declare 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Canada was a leader in advocating for this. The economic, dietary and environmental value of grain legumes was amplified by the UN focus initiative. Media outlets responded, including the Globe and Mail, which published a two-page spread on the declaration and the importance of pulse crops.

Due to the efforts of many, the UN General Assembly has adopted a new resolution declaring 2020 the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH). Once again, we have won a platform to raise global awareness of farming issues. The message is that crop protection can reduce hunger, enhance economic growth and protect the environment.

Long before the recent industry and consumer focus on plant-based protein, statistics showed plants make up 80 per cent of direct food consumption and animal feed. But, pests and diseases destroy 20 to 40 per cent of global food crops annually. The result of this onslaught of bacteria, viruses, fungi, weeds, nematodes and insects is that 800 million people are undernourished and farmers take an economic hit.

Canada exports more than $56 billion worth of agriculture and agri-food products annually. In Western Canada, we understand the issues created when importing countries invoke non-tariff trade barriers using plant pests and diseases as justification. This should not diminish our support for the regulatory systems that protect us all from legitimate concerns.

Undoubtedly, trade can increase the risk of exporting plant pests and diseases. To make it safe, it is important to implement international plant-health requirements and norms. Such standards were developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Plant Protection Convention. This system is intended to reduce the negative impact of pests and pesticides on human health, economies and the environment. It also makes it easier to diminish the spread of plant pests and diseases without setting up unnecessary trade barriers.

When combatting plant pests and diseases, policymakers should encourage the use of science-based tools such as integrated pest management to keep our crops healthy, and farmers should adopt them.

Technological innovations in plant-monitoring systems have been tremendous. The use of in-field surveys and weather monitoring supports smart systems that inform farmers when to take action. For example, the Alberta Insect Pest Monitoring Network publishes survey and forecast maps for bertha armyworm, cabbage seedpod weevil, cutworm, diamondback moth, grasshopper, pea leaf weevil, wheat midge and wheat stem sawfly.

Constant change is the curse of working in biological systems. These challenges are ever-evolving, so how do we ensure the health of our crops is optimal? We need to invest in research that will create innovative practices and technologies. We know that governments need to invest in people who can do the hard work of monitoring pests and diseases and who have the knowledge, technical tools and drive to engage in knowledge transfer with all industry partners.

Despite the challenges, it is appropriate we celebrate IYPH in 2020. The level of innovation available to farmers today would be a shock to earlier generations. New crop genetics with significant resistance traits, integrated pest management approaches, innovative equipment and the development of smart-system monitoring have all contributed to a tool box that supports improved plant health in Western Canada and beyond.

Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.


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