Supporting sustainable ecosystems

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), declaring 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health provides a “once in a lifetime opportunity to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.”

The FAO notes that plants are critical for human life by providing both oxygen and food, yet pests and diseases result in a 40% loss of food crops annually. This causes a detrimental shortage in food supply and damage to agriculture, the primary income source for poor rural communities. The threat to plant health has also increased because of climate change and expanded international travel and trade, which spread pests and diseases worldwide. The FAO stresses the importance of both preventing the threat to plant health as well as addressing it in environmentally friendly ways.

Connotations of plant-based diets

The issue of plant health is especially important due to the current movement towards a more plant-based diet. Rishad Habib, PhD candidate in marketing and behavioural science at the UBC Sauder School of Business, believes this type of diet can address pressing health, environmental and welfare issues.

“From a health perspective, developed countries often struggle with heart disease and stroke, and it’s been shown that a more plant-based diet would lower rates of these very serious diseases which are the major causes of death in the Western world,” she says.

From an environmental perspective, Habib notes that the amount of water and land required to grow plants is much less than that required to grow the same amount of meat.

“Of land used for growing crops, about a third is used for growing food for animals. So instead of eating the animals that eat the crops, we could get the energy from eating the crops themselves,” she adds. “It’s more efficient, taking out the middle animal.”

Lastly, from a welfare perspective, she highlights the “abysmal” conditions in factory farms that contribute to keeping the price of meat low, and that are harmful to both human and animal welfare.

Habib explains that despite the advantages of a plant-based diet, the moral connotations of being vegetarian or vegan may prevent people from choosing plant-based foods. In ongoing research by Habib and UBC professors Yann Cornil and Karl Aquino, they find that non-vegans/vegetarians react negatively to products labelled “suitable for vegetarians” or “100% vegan,” but the negativity diminishes when alternate labels like “100% plant-based” are used.

“These words have more than just the literal meaning, they have deeper connotations, with identity and moralization,” she notes. “Plant-based labelling is more neutral, inclusive and effective. Labelling that focuses on minimizing harm is also effective as it piggybacks on existing moral values and makes it more challenging for people to reject the product.”

Healthy produce at a farmers’ market.

Habib believes this research has potential to assist companies in more effective labelling of sustainable products. She describes additional research with professors Katherine White and David Hardisty around the SHIFT framework, which explores the five factors (social influence, habit, individual self, feelings and cognition, and tangibility) that can be leveraged to change behaviour in a more positive direction.

Food as a community connector

The Edible Garden Project (EGP), a non-profit initiative in North Vancouver, uses food as a platform to transform community, address urban environmental, health, and social issues, and empower citizens to learn to grow their own.

Rishad Habib.

“I think that the most important function of the EGP is a link to food systems that people are really disconnected from these days,” says project manager Claire McGillivray. EGP focuses on three main aspects: teaching through education in elementary schools and workshops for all ages, sharing produce grown at the Food Hub through the work of a large volunteer base spread over five satellite locations, and growing food that is sold at the farmers market so the profit can continue to support project costs.

“Our hope in training kids in ecological literacy is having a way for them to expand their circle of compassion…to think about themselves as part of a system, the impacts they have on the environment and other people around them,” McGillivray explains. “The message [is] that everything is connected, that the health of the planet and everything in it is directly connected to their health and well-being, and it’s the same for adults.”

To address plant health, EGP focuses on prevention. “We have a small site but grow a big diversity of crops so we’re not harbouring any one type of pest or disease that likes one plant family,” McGillivray says. “Most pests or diseases have a specialty of what plant family they go after, so we use crop rotation as one of our techniques to not be planting the same plant family in the same place year after year so that we can spread out those pests. Another of our tactics, which is quite intuitive, is that diversity creates more habitats for predatorial insects.”

Supporting plant health

Community members can get involved with the EGP by volunteering, donating money or supplies, or attending a farmers market or workshop.

As Habib notes, plant health is crucial in creating the capacity to feed the growing world population, particularly if more people do switch to plant-based diets. The FAO emphasizes that we all have a role to play in plant health, whether as a consumer, farmer, business owner or government.

To learn more about how you can support plant health, visit www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/take-action/en/

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