Mentors unpack the importance and diversity of studying plant health in The International Year of Plant Health

By January 30, 2020News, Profiles

In2science mentor Matthew James trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro.

In2science mentor, Matthew James has been around trees his entire life. As a child, bushwalks with his dad piqued Matthew’s interest in the complexity and diversity of trees. Therefore, it made sense to direct his passion to study a Master of Urban Horticulture at the University of Melbourne while mentoring for In2science and working as a consulting Arborist to practice what he learns daily.

Similarly, mentor Ivy Vrousgos, from La Trobe University, has always been interested in cultivating plants in her garden and helping them flourish. It made Ivy want to begin a Bachelor of Science, but she only decided to major in Botany and Environmental Geoscience after learning about plant evolution inspired her as an undergraduate.

There are moments in life when enough curiosity inspires you to explore a passion further in your education. For Ivy it was in a lecture theatre and for Matthew, looking at a leaf cell through a microscope and learning about photosynthesis for the first time. These moments are opportune, because the health of plants throughout the world is increasingly under threat due to climate change caused by human activity. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) estimates that 40% of agricultural crops are lost annually because of reduced biodiversity and increased trade. This spreads pests and diseases to new areas where they can thrive and causes devastating effects because plants are vital to food security worldwide.

Once plant pests and diseases have established themselves in crops, they are almost impossible to eradicate. The effort required to manage them is expensive and time consuming.  In the wake of a new decade, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2020 as the International Year Of Plant Health (IYPH) because, at the very least, protecting plants from pests and diseases is substantially more cost-effective than international plant health disasters.

This renewed awareness in plant and ecosystem health is welcomed by mentors Ivy and Matthew, who study different areas in botany at La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne, but still share a desire to improve the health of the plant species in their respective fields. Matthew wants to take the skills he learns in Urban Horticulture to improve his practice as an arborist and address some issues that plants face in an urban environment. Ivy’s goal is to merge the fields of ecology and agriculture to develop smarter cropping systems.

A 600-700 year old Red Gum tree in Dunkeld.

When discussing what the IYPH means to them, Matthew says that “healthy plants are resilient plants. We are already seeing the effects that the increase of temperature has on plants, particularly plants that don’t possess the adaptations needed to survive in the changing climate”. Ivy agreed, adding that, “Plant health is an important aspect to our very existence, so it is very important for people to understand this”.

Practical ways that we can contribute to protecting our plants include limiting transportation of plants and plant products internationally, reducing our carbon footprint, connecting with our policymakers to encourage investment in plant health research and using environmentally sensitive methods of pest and disease reduction such as integrated pest management.

Plants make up 80% of the food we eat and provide 98% of the oxygen we breathe. The FAO estimates that agricultural production must rise to 60% by 2050 in order to feed the world’s growing population, despite climate change generally reducing the quality and quantity of crops.

If you’re inspired by plants and the importance of protecting them, it may be worth considering taking your curiosity further. The breadth of courses you can undertake in plant health is huge. Botany is no longer one course or subject, but forms large areas of study that results in transferable skills that overlap many fields including genetics, geoscience, urban horticulture and economics. As In2science mentors, Matthew and Ivy share these passions in the classroom, helping to guide students to pursue their interest in practical ways and find things that make them curious, because you never know where that might take you.

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