Plant breeders ‘Think Again’

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The Southern African Plant Breeders’ Association (SAPBA) held its 14th symposium at The Protea Hotel by Marriott Stellenbosch.

The Southern African Plant Breeders’ Association (SAPBA) held its 14th symposium at The Protea Hotel by Marriott Stellenbosch. The steering committee decided to focus on the soft fruit and grape industry.

Toinette van Rooyen, president of SAPBA.

Toinette van Rooyen, president of SAPBA, said most members form part of the maize industry. However, seeing as the theme was ‘Think Again’ at this year’s symposium, they thought it would be good to involve people from other industries to challenges their thinking and bring new ideas to the table.

“One of the things the symposium focussed on is climate change and how we can use our breeding strategies to overcome that. We are focussing on breeding for the new norm as well as knowing your industry. Being a plant breeder, you need to be able to think 15 years ahead. What would the customer want, and what will the industry need?”

Start paying attention to the weather

Prof Beatrice Conradie of the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, spoke about productivity in a time of climate change. She said we don’t have to worry about climate change, but we should start paying attention to the weather.

“We should do a lot of weather watching.” This weather watching needs to happen at two levels. The one is at scientific and political level, and the other one at farm level.

At the scientific level, the main need is temperature data. There is very little temperature data on the public domain. “If you are sitting with long-term temperature data, put it out there. Let as many of the best minds in the country apply their minds so we can learn what it is that we are already experiencing.

“At farm level, I find citizen science – groups of farmers getting together to weather watch and to share data for their farms. Farmers talking to each other,” said Prof Conradie.

The steering committee of the SAPBA symposium are (front, from the left) Lucky Makome, Corteva, Toinette van Rooyen, Starke Ayres, Angeline van Biljon, University of the Free State, Zelda Bijzet, ARC, Marike Visser, Stellenbosch University, (back, from the left) Roean Wessels and Bernand Welman, both from Syngenta.The steering committee of the SAPBA symposium are (front, from the left) Lucky Makome, Corteva, Toinette van Rooyen, Starke Ayres, Angeline van Biljon, University of the Free State, Zelda Bijzet, ARC, Marike Visser, Stellenbosch University, (back, from the left) Roean Wessels and Bernand Welman, both from Syngenta.

We could lose food security

Prof Conradie said agricultural productivity in South Africa (SA) is in great trouble. “We must pull together all stakeholders, otherwise we could lose the food security battle. We must make sure the entire chain, from funding and research to extension and farming is stronger everywhere.”

Producers’ organisations play a pivotal role in bringing together stakeholders and ruling the traffic so we as a research community can be as productive as possible, Prof Conradie said. When asked where the greatest efficiency lies or what change will bring the greatest improvement, she said she thinks the problem is not predominantly on the research front. Instead, she thinks the problem lies largely in the transmission from the lab to the farmer’s field. That’s where we are missing out.

“You just need someone to go and fetch best practice, test best practice, adapt it for SA, roll it out and hold farmers’ hands. If you want to regulate, make life simpler for farmers and not more complicated, deregulate, less administrative and slightly more flexibility to respond,” she explained.

Message to scientists

Prof Conradie’s message to scientists was to go out and talk to farmers and extension officers. They should listen to what the needs of these extension officers might be.

“Once in three years I think it should be a discipline for scientists to say, what are my five key findings, how can I take these five key findings, package them in a way that an extension officer and a farmer will understand, and how can I get adaption of my research.” – Hugo Lochner, AgriOrbit