Food insecurity is one of South Africa’s most intractable problems – one of the top priorities of Government in South Africa, the Sustainable Development Goals and the focus of many international, continental and regional declarations and discussions.
Seldom before has the world faced such complicated and inter-related problems, made more severe by the inter-connectedness introduced by globalisation. The appropriateness and need for research at the interface of production, food safety, health, nutrition and economics is evident in recent global and African crises that show the limited ability we have to solve complex and often recurring problems in the agriculture and food system.
The 2008 global food and recent financial crisis; high food, fuel and fodder prices; climate change; the energy challenges and the inability of governments and the world to respond effectively and efficiently to the largest humanitarian crisis in Africa since the Rinderpest-induced famines of the 1800s. The 2011/2012 crisis in the Horn of Africa led to the loss of millions of lives, adding to the toll of deeply entrenched and widespread hunger and malnutrition in Africa.
Tackling these problems requires innovative approaches to research beyond traditional knowledge silos. It demands that we find creative ways of communicating the findings of scientific research to policy-makers and communities where the knowledge can inform decisions and change behaviour. Transdisciplinary enquiry encourages active research through teams of experts from different disciplines working beyond traditional knowledge boundaries to create new knowledge and solve complex problems, together with communities and stakeholders, to generate new knowledge that goes beyond discipline knowledge.
The University of Pretoria (UP) recognises that traditional academic approaches are inadequate to deal with the complexity of current problems. As part of the UP 2025 Strategy, the University established Institutional Research Themes (IRT) in identified strategic areas that address complex societal issues and are capable of significant growth and improving the University’s research output and international positioning.
Following initial approval from UP executive in 2010, an inter-Faculty Task Team was established to develop a business plan for the IRT. This team was led by the deans from the four founding faculties – Education, Health Sciences, Natural and Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Science. The 17-person team met regularly over 18 months with the support of Prof Luc D’Haese from Ghent University in Belgium. The discussions identified five key research areas as the focus of the IRT, namely:
• Feeding the world in a resource-constrained environment;
• Ensuring safer food through effective control and regulation;
• Promoting health, nutrition and well-being;
• Changing consumption behaviour for improved health;
• Strategic planning and policy reform to manage food security risks.
These focus areas for research provided the organisation structure for the development of Research Themes. The business plan was submitted on 16 August 2011 and approved by the University Executive in September 2011. An application for the establishment of the virtual Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being was submitted and approved in October 2011.
The University’s commitment to this initiative is demonstrated by the investment of R10.5 million from UP’s strategic reserves, the prioritisation of University bursaries and fellowships to support these institution-wide initiatives and the keen interest and support from University Management in the progress and development of the IRT and Institute. The direct leadership of the Deans from five faculties (now including the Faculty of Law), their active encouragement of staff involvement and their active role in management of the IRT is unique.
Prof Sheryl Hendriks was appointed as the first Director of the Institute in October 2011 and the Research Theme Leaders were appointed in January 2012. Each Research Theme Leader is an internationally recognised researcher and active team leader. During the initial phase of the IRT, the Management Team focused on identifying researchers and projects within the Institution that related to, or could support, the IRT. Initially over 70 staff members were identified as working on over 50 food-security related projects.
The Institute was formally launched in May 2012 by Prof Cheryl de la Rey, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria. Ms Sheila Sisulu, the Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme spoke at the event and encouraged the initiative, saying that what the Institute sought to achieve was exactly what the country and Africa needed.