How to make a hobby and science meet

Posted on January 07, 2015

‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,’ said Confucius. This advice seems to have been taken to heart by Prof Johann Kirsten, Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development and the brain behind the registration of Certified Karoo Lamb.

What initially started during a sabbatical as an interesting departmental research project with international collaborators has led to cross-disciplinary research across the UP campus and has the country buzzing.

Prof Kirsten’s interest was sparked by how products with a regional identity had expanded dramatically over the past two decades since the recognition of geographical indications (GIs) as a distinct form of intellectual property under the WTO’s Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS). Famous GIs include products such as Champagne, Parma ham and Roquefort cheese.

Cerkia Bramley, a qualified attorney and an agricultural economist, completed her master’s degree under Prof Kirsten’s supervision and subsequently assisted him in a multi-national project on GIs in southern Africa, focusing on Southern African GIs, such as rooibos and heuningbos tea, Karoo lamb, Kalahari melon-seed oil and karakul fur (Namibia).

Having grown up in the Cape, the Karoo lamb and the intellectual property attached to the name and culture of this specific region are very close to Prof Kirsten’s heart. He explains that in the case of Karoo lamb, the specific region and the vegetation on which the animals feed, determine the distinctive taste of their meat. The Karoo is a unique region and includes parts of the southern Free State and the Eastern, Northern and Western Cape.

’It’s about the climate, the place, the process and the people,’ Prof Kirsten emphasises.

A book entitled Developing geographical indications in the South, which emanated from this research, was edited by Cerkia Bramley, Estelle Biénabe and Prof Kirsten.

After realising the potential of the Karoo lamb and the need to protect its name to benefit the region and its people, Prof Kirsten started to cooperate with different role players and different government departments. Since the farmers showed considerable interest in the Karoo lamb product idea as a valuable asset, sensory aspects of the Karoo lamb were scrutinised – in particular the very specific taste that comes from the Karoo bushes on which they feed. Prof Hettie Schönfeldt, a meat-science expert, got involved to assist with the important aspects of meat science.

The Northern Cape government also came to the party and provided the funding needed to develop a certification mark. Prof Kirsten founded the Karoo Development Foundation (KDF) as a community outreach project, but also to protect and legalise the use of the name ’Karoo Lamb’. The KDF is now the owner of the certification mark, which plays an important role in protecting the broader interests of the Karoo and also helps role players in the process of commercialising the Karoo Meat of Origin certification scheme.

At the University of Pretoria this project expanded and evolved into cross-disciplinary research. Four master’s dissertations dealing with different aspects of the GI of Karoo lamb have already been completed and two students in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development are working on their PhDs.

Four master’s students in consumer science also completed their research on related aspects, and in animal and wildlife sciences research is currently being conducted on the amino acids and the vegetation on which Karoo lambs feed. Other research that developed from the Karoo lamb initiative investigates the sensory/aroma aspects (food science), and researchers in the Department of Chemistry are trying to determine the differences between lamb from the Karoo and lamb from other regions, for example the Kalahari, where the animals feed mainly on grass. To this end they are using sophisticated equipment and techniques such as comprehensive gas chromatography and time-of-flight mass spectrometry.

- Author Faculty

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