Biotic stress has a major impact on the process of natural selection in plants. As plants have evolved under variable environmental conditions, they have acquired a diverse spectrum of defensive strategies against pathogens and herbivores. Genetic variation in the expression of plant defence offers valuable insights into the evolution of these strategies. The ‘zigzag’ model, which describes an ongoing arms race between inducible plant defences and their suppression by pathogens, is now a commonly accepted model of plant defence evolution. This review explores additional strategies by which plants have evolved to cope with biotic stress under different selective circumstances. Apart from interactions with plant-beneficial micro-organisms that can antagonize pathogens directly, plants have the ability to prime their immune system in response to selected environmental signals. This defence priming offers disease protection that is effective against a broad spectrum of virulent pathogens, as long as the augmented defence reaction is expressed before the invading pathogen has the opportunity to suppress host defences. Furthermore, priming has been shown to be a cost-efficient defence strategy under relatively hostile environmental conditions. Accordingly, it is possible that selected plant varieties have evolved a constitutively primed immune system to adapt to levels of disease pressure. Here, we examine this hypothesis further by evaluating the evidence for natural variation in the responsiveness of basal defence mechanisms, and discuss how this genetic variation can be exploited in breeding programmes to provide sustainable crop protection against pests and diseases.