“The World is in Your Hands” says Monty Don

“The world is in your hands and the world begins at your door. So, look after the world at your door and then, there’s a chance that you’ll be looking after the whole planet,” says Monty Don, the UK’s leading garden writer and broadcaster and an advocate for the Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations (FAO) for the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH)*, which seeks to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development. 

Monty Don spoke to UNRIC about the many connections that exist between human health, plant health and broader ecological wellbeing.  

The notion of plant health is complicated as Monty Don explains: “I think the idea of plant health for me is both extremely complicated but actually when you take it back to its basics, it can be simplified down to the health of plants and the health of people, physical and mental. My definition of plant health, which I would like to make very clear is two things: One, plants that are healthy because they have adapted best to where they are growing. In other words, not a plant that has in any way had its so-called ‘health’ or productivity boosted by human intervention. The second thing is the implications of health that can be brought to people; how plants work in promoting health. Now, there are two levels [in which] they do that: one is physical health, the other is mental health – and both are equally important.  Increasingly, certainly in terms of gardens, that is becoming a major issue and the last year has highlighted that.”

Monty himself has championed the positive mental health effects that gardening can have. Asked about the beneficial impact of horticulture on people’s mental health within the context of the pandemic, he replied that “it definitely can, and does help mental health and there’s plenty of evidence for that. This year in particular, people have, by the tens of thousands all over the world, reported that it has provided a close connection with nature, with the seasons, with the weather and with their own internal mindset.”  According to Monty, “horticulture has provided hope, comfort, solace, inspiration and balance above all things. We might be living in the midst of an unpredictable, scary, chaotic world at the moment, but gardening remains constant, and plants remain constant.”

Monty says that people everywhere can get involved in promoting the ideas that underpin the Year of Plant Health – like, for example, learning more about plants and their differing needs. He says that the process of growing plants should be informed by the evolutionary needs of differing plant species.   “The first thing to do for plant health is understand what a plant needs and has evolved to need. I think that in terms of healthy plants and what people can do, my main advice to people is to find the right plant for the right place. The biggest mistake that gardeners make is to try and force a plant to grow where it doesn’t want to grow without understanding what a plant needs in order to be healthy.”

poster health FAO 2020

Monty gives the example of how rosemary, adapted to the rocky sun-baked hillsides of the Mediterranean, will have very different requirements to a Hosta which likes shade, rich food, and lots of water.  “My point here is that health is a relative concept and that the easiest way to understand this is that the healthiest plant is the one which is adapted best to the situation in which it finds itself.”

2021 is also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. Asked about the connection to plant health, Monty specifies the systemic approach we should adopt in associating where food comes from with its environmental cost.

“We need to eat a lot less meat. I would say that to be healthy, the main thing is to encourage people both to eat and to have access to (which is not always the same thing), fresh, seasonal, locally produced fruit and vegetables. In the wealthy west and north of Europe, we have twenty-four hour, three-hundred and sixty-five-day, access to fruit and vegetables from all over the world. Whether that is healthy is another matter. I would argue it is not, because it means both huge transportation costs with a knock-on effect and, what people don’t know about but should do, huge interventionist artificial growth out of season. So, for example, you could eat strawberries in February, but they will have to be grown in a polytunnel in Spain or wherever and produced in such a way that actually they won’t taste any good.”

Referring to the importance of consuming local fruits and vegetables to have a balanced diet and a balanced climate, Monty Don continues: “Get people to grow them – as many as possible in their allotments, their back gardens, their window boxes and their rooftop gardens. Get them to buy locally when they can. They then will get maximum health benefits and the planet will get maximum benefits from not ruining the environment.”

As former President of the Soil Association, an organisation that “digs deeper to transform how we eat”, Monty Don understands the connection between plant health and soil health.

“Soil health and plant health are inextricably connected and combined. If you have healthy soil, you will have healthy plants. The relationship between the bacteria in the soil is completely bound up in the nutrients that the plants take up. The other thing is that it’s not just the main nutrients – the nitrogen and the phosphorus that we know about – but the micro-nutrients and minerals which increasingly people realise are so important to our health.”

However, soil health has been an element of modern agriculture that has been side-lined to our collective detriment. “Our agriculture since the second world war has almost ignored soil health. We have – over the last seventy, eighty years – treated soil as an inert medium that we can then use rather like a factory floor. We can raise plants short of any obvious nutritional quality. What we’re now discovering is that there is a new generation of farmers all over the world who realise it’s much subtler and much more complicated than that and by looking after the soil you save a fortune not spent on artificial fertilisers, of course. You get much healthier plants and you get just as good crops, which is key.”

As Monty explains, “there are more living organisms in the first six inches of the soil than there are stars in the known universe. And we know less about a foot below the ground than we do the deepest part of the sea. We don’t know very much about soil. There’s a huge amount of work to be done there.”

The last few years have seen a flurry of youth-led activism on issues relating specifically to climate change and other broad ecological issues that fall within the remit of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals. Young people are championing sustainability by leading the way forward on matters of environmental change and degradation.

We concluded by asking Monty Don what his message to the younger generation would be.  “I would say, apropos of everything we’ve been talking about, the world is in your hands and the world begins at your door. The more people [who] can be locally aware and locally active in their gardens, in their allotments and think about the birds they see, the birds they hear… think about the trees on the streets they live, think about these things. Then it will connect up.”

Encouraging young people to concentrate their concerns for global issues by focusing on their local surroundings, Monty advises: “If they deal with their own immediate world and connect to it, learn about it and learn to love it and treasure it and care for it, grow plants and really understand it, then that tackles the bigger picture better than anything else. So, I would say, it’s the old, old story, Think Global, Act Local.”

* 2020 was designated the International Year of Plant Health, but due to COVID-19, the promotion of the initiative has been extended into 2021

Monty Don interview

Watch Monty Don discuss plant health with Diarmuid Gavin and Janet Ellis here

For further general information, visit  http://www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/about/en/
Read more about Monty and other IYPH advocates here
http://www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/our-advocates/en/ and http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1333858/icode/

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