Department of Science and Technology

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Welgevallen Farm, Stellenbosch


Of all regions in the world, Africa's rapidly growing population most needs sustainable development. Take energy. The demand for energy is set to surge, fuelled by economic growth, demographic change and urbanisation. As the costs of low-carbon energy fall, Africa could leapfrog into a new era of power generation.


Similarly new technologies could transform African agriculture. If we invest in Africa’s green and blue technologies, Africa can be transformed. These new technologies can generate a much-needed improvement in Africa’s food and nutrition security. Growth in agriculture is twice as effective at reducing poverty compared to growth in other sectors. That’s what a 2015 McKinsey report told us. It’s more effective at reducing poverty than investing in mining or finance or services.


And it’s women who produce most of the food.


With consumption rising in markets throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, South Africa could triple its agricultural exports by 2030. This could be a key driver of rural growth, benefiting the nearly one in ten South Africans who depend on subsistence or smallholder farming.


Last year and this year we faced drought on a huge scale. The drought in maize-producing areas is having a devastating impact on livelihoods and on food prices. Maize is our staple food. It's difficult to import white maize to make up for what we don't grow. People will switch to rice and wheat, making our dependence on imports even greater.


Last year the DST supported the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council in convening an International Congress on Food Security and Safety. This was in line with the DST's goal of undertaking research, capacity building and dissemination activities to promote a sustainable food system that brings about food security for poor, vulnerable and marginal populations.


We helped to establish a Centre of Excellence in food security at UWC. It's the largest, in terms of the number of participating institutions and the size of grant received, out of our 16 established CoEs. The food-security centre of excellence is informing national policy for comprehensive rural development, land reform and food security.


We also established a number of research chairs (SARChI) in areas related to food security. These include research chairs in post-harvest technology, meat science genomics to nutrinomics, disease resistance in field crops, sustainable agricultural systems, rural agronomy and development, land and agrarian reform, and wine sciences.


The SARChI food-security research chairs have recently received a boost in the form of an additional three SA-UK bilateral research chairs, co-funded through the Newton Fund.


In creating synergies among research chairs, the CoEs and other established researchers in the system, we have established communities of practice that facilitate collaborative research, sharing of best practices and provide a platform for influencing policy in the respective areas.


I should not forget to mention our initiative with the deciduous fruit industry. It stands out as a best case of industry, government, academia and science councils collaborating to enhance the competitiveness of our fruit exports. The Post-Harvest Innovation Programme was first launched in 2007 and was renewed in 2011. It has funded 54 research projects in the fresh fruit sector to address post-harvest issues such as product control during transit, packaging, non-invasive fruit quality assessment, and post-harvest disease control.


Similarly, the Sector Innovation Fund programme is a public-private partnership where industry can steer research, development, and innovation efforts within universities, science councils, and other research agencies to meet pressing industry competitiveness challenges. This public-private partnership with industry has resulted in the creation of nine Sector Innovation Funds. The priority sectors are aligned to sectors in the National Development Plan and include citrus, sugar, post-harvest, forestry, boat-building, aquaculture, wine, minerals processing and paper manufacturing.


A word about forestry. R&D is important for the forestry sector. Yet there has been a decline in public sector funding for forestry research since a high point in the 1980s. Since then, most of the investment in forestry research has been by the private sector. But in recent years private sector funding for collaborative research has stalled and is now being reignited.


I'll give you two examples.


The first is a university programme. For the last 8 years the DST has funded the Forest Molecular Genetics Programme at the University of Pretoria. The programme has evolved into a multifaceted tree breeding platform - an investment in the development of a renewable, woody biomass based bio-economy in South Africa. Key industry partners are SAPPI and Mondi but other industry and grower’s associations are also represented.


The second is a public-private partnership. The Industry Innovation Partnership initiative was established in 2013. Initially, R500 million was allocated for the implementation of the programme over the 2013 MTEF period. The DST reserved R166 million for the development of the Sector Innovation Fund programme as part of the broader initiative.


It has to said that we have subordinated our farming policy to food security. We have placed the burden of producing our food on larger and larger commercial farms. But farming in such large units is in trouble. Dairy, grain, and maize prices are set globally and not locally and the global food chains can force farmers to the wall.


Farming itself is in crisis. We have never had to import food before.


The Wheat Breeding Platform, a public-private partnership, is an important sign that we are responding to this crisis.


Wheat is the second most important grain crop produced in South Africa, and plays an important role in national food security. Most of the wheat produced in South Africa is bread wheat, with small quantities of durum wheat being produced in certain areas, which is used to produce pasta, while the remainder is used as seeds and animal feed.


According to the latest statistics South Africa imports 46% of its wheat to satisfy domestic demand.


Global experience indicates that, while growth in export earnings can encourage higher imports, it does not necessarily generate technological innovation and broad-based export-led economic growth. Structural change arising from technological redundancy must be allowed.


The Wheat Breeding Platform provides smallholder farmers access to seed technology to enhance yields, productivity, income and growth opportunities. Indirectly it may strengthen employment capabilities of wheat firms or create new jobs. The partnership with industry and universities also supports reduction of inequality, as all farmers will have access to the newest technology, thus levelling the playing field.


According to the National Agricultural Research and Development Strategy (2008), the agricultural sector is characterised by high input costs (including seeds, machinery and pesticides), a low level of technological innovation, low level of investment in R&D, poor partnerships - within and between - the public and private sectors, fragmented research efforts, lack of adequate extension, and household food insecurity.


Global agricultural competition is fierce, and is often subsidised, and food safety standards for exports are ever increasing. In order to grow the sector increased investment is required to support research, innovation and technology in targeted R&D areas.


The recent introduction of the Agricultural Policy Action Plan (APAP), the National Intellectual Property Management Office, the Oceans Economy, the Agri-parks initiative of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, and now our Bio-economy Strategy, together provide new approaches to address the challenges of food security and sustainable development.


In closing, a word about bio-economy policy. What we are seeing in Africa, according to influential Harvard international development Professor, Calestuous Juma, is new opportunities for economic transformation being built on abundant biological resources. Not mining. Or digital services. Biological resources. The emerging bio-economy has the potential to transform primary production, especially in agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, health and industry. The drivers for the new bio-economy are advances in genetics, biology, ecology, information technology, and engineering.


We have seen what happened in Brazil, before it’s recent troubles, when it was well on the way to becoming an environmental superpower. It used science and technology to tap into what it called the ‘natural knowledge’ economy - biofuels, in which Brazil leads world research; renewable energy – half of Brazil’s energy is already green; and climate change – the Amazon is vital to the planet's health.


The thing is bio-economy strategies around the world approach food security in different ways. Most regard biotechnology as a promising way to increase yields and improve food safety. Usually that’s enough, with little attention given to changes in consumption patterns and efficiency in the use of resources. Yet, in some strategies, the increased demand for non-food biomass is explicitly named as a potential threat to food security. In India, for example, their policy on support for biofuels is conscious of potential land-use conflicts.


To make the best of our African biological resources, let me emphasise this point: collaboration across Africa is vital - not only across southern Africa although that's the best place to start. Universities have a key role to play. There has been some progress in this regard, as illustrated by the formation in March 2015 of the African Research Universities Alliance in Senegal. This is a network of 15 leading higher education institutions from eight African countries. Its goal is to train research managers as well as promoting cooperation between universities when it comes to research.


We need African scientists to devise new solutions to sustainable development - to provide cleaner energy and better food and better health to our communities. We need African scientists to develop new technologies that allow us to use our natural resources in a manner that reduces environmental risk. We need African scientists to save our biological resources for future generations.