ACGT lays the foundation for broader regional cooperation in plant biotechnology

The ACGT recently hosted a regional Plant Biotechnology Workshop aimed at discussing opportunities for plant biotechnology in the context of national priorities, while considering the impact of climate change.

Clockwise from right: Prof Ignatius Ncube (UL), Prof Jane Morris (ACGT), Prof Chrissie Rey (Wits) and Prof Mary Scholes (Wits)
Clockwise from right:
Prof Ignatius Ncube (UL),
Prof Jane Morris (ACGT),
Prof Chrissie Rey (Wits)
and Prof Mary Scholes (Wits)

The meeting, which was held on 19 August 2009 at the CSIR, was attended by researchers from the CSIR, University of Pretoria, Wits University, University of Johannesburg, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and University of Limpopo. Representatives from Government and some of its agencies also participated in the full-day Workshop.

With presentations from delegates of institutions including the National Departments of Agriculture and Science and Technology (DST), PlantBio and LifeLab, the Workshop succeeded in drawing representation from some of the key roleplayers in the advancement of plant biotechnology. This bodes well for the ACGT’s objective of building the foundation for an ongoing regional plant biotechnology forum.

The Plant Biotechnology Workshop

The ACGT’s Dr Rachel Chikwamba of the CSIR, set the foundational context for the workshop by providing a broad perspective of the status of current plant biotechnology activities underway in the region. Other highlights included a presentation by Ben Durham of DST in which he gave an overview of the Department’s Farmer to Pharma to Farmer programme and detailed its view of priorities in plant biotechnology. The Department of Agriculture’s Mr Gontse Morakile also contributed to the discussion on National priorities in the field by giving his Department’s perspective on the matter. Representatives of the Biotechnology Innovation Centres PlantBio and LifeLab explained their interests and criteria for funding projects in plant biotechnology.

Ltr: Dr Juan Vorster (FABI),
Dr Sanushka Naidoo (UP),
Dr Eduard Venter (UJ),
Dr Noelani van den Berg (UP)
and Dr Mariette Bezuidenhout (UP)

A presentation by the ARC on the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project further broadened the context by highlighting the background and objectives of this Gates Foundation-funded project that harnesses collaboration across five countries throughout the continent. Prof Zander Myburg from the University of Pretoria gave an overview of the international project to sequence the Eucalyptus genome, and highlighted opportunities for involvement by South African scientists.

Adding a global outlook to the proceedings was an interesting talk by Prof Mary Scholes of ACGT partner-institution, Wits University. Her presentation entitled “Climate Change and Agricultural Systems: Challenges and Chances” looked at the importance of conducting research in the context of being mindful of carbon footprints, as well as how climate change could influence agricultural research in future.

The Plant Biotechnology Workshop arose as an outcome of a smaller related workshop that was held in 2008 and at which it was agreed that there would be benefit in building a broader collaboration between institutions.

According to ACGT Director – Dr Jane Morris, a key aim of the Workshop was to identify problems as well as solutions for regional plant biotechnology. “The participants took the time to discuss not only the constraints, but also the opportunities that exist for collaboration in efforts to overcome some of those constraints”, she explained.

Dr Morris cites one outcome of the workshop as being the identification of some critical issues facing the field. One such issue is the timing of funding for large collaborations. “Funding of this nature is typically available at the tail-end of the research process, as it approaches the commercialisation phase. There really aren’t very effective mechanisms for stimulating collaboration earlier on in the process, which could in fact help things move along faster”, said Dr Morris.

The workshop has also resulted in agreements around new initiatives such as the creation of a task team to look into aspects of climate change in agriculture, as well as the continuation of the workshops as an ongoing forum – the next meeting of which will be hosted by the University of Johannesburg.