FABI-hosted online symposium on tree health a major success

Posted on June 05, 2020

More than 250 participants from South Africa and 12 countries across four continents joined an online meeting  of  the Tree Protection Co-Operative Programme (TPCP) and DSI NRF Centre of Excellence in Plant Health Biotechnology (CPHB) hosted by the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria (UP).

The 31st round of this annual meeting should have been held at UP’s Future Africa campus, but was moved online due to the COVID-19 lockdown regulations. The three-day conference was condensed into a six-hour-long symposium. Delegates at this international event included FABI and UP researchers and students, members of the UP leadership, industry partners and representative bodies, government departments, research collaborators and academia.

During the session themed “Industry-University partnerships in a post-COVID-19 world”, Director of the CPHB, Professor Emma Steenkamp predicted that these partnerships would remain “crucial” in a post-COVID-19 world. Chief Executive Officer of York Timbers, Piet van Zyl said COVID-19 would be considered a “good crisis” if it placed greater emphasis on universities to groom “sharp people” with the analytical abilities to be proactive in finding solutions to societal challenges. He also stressed the importance of universities as platforms to stimulate “coopetition” between diverse partners, including international expert networks, industries and government.

UP Vice-Chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe said the level of support that a university enjoyed from industry was a gauge of its “vibrancy”. He said a “well-nourished university needs sustenance from industry”.

During the session that focused on “Tree health in a changing world”, Professor Emma Archer from UP’s Department of Geography, Geoinformatics & Meteorology explained that rising surface temperatures, driven by human activity, have important implications for agriculture and forestry alike. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts an increase of 1,5°C in the average land surface temperature by 2030-2052. “Regional changes in climate will see central southern Africa receiving lower annual rainfall. The region will also experience increased mean minimum and maximum temperatures and more frequent heatwaves resulting in greater evapotranspiration losses.”

Members of a panel highlighted the contributions of fundamental research in efforts to maintain healthy plantation of trees. They also emphasised the importance of continuous monitoring as an integral tool in managing insect pests and pathogens. Dr Angus Carnegie, who leads the Forest Health Survey Unit in the Department of Primary Industries in New South Wales, Australia, showed how research using remote sensing and machine learning had led to the production of detailed maps of pest outbreaks that plantation growers could use to target areas of concern. He also illustrated the value of burn-intensity maps to help manage fires.

An important message emerging from the presentations was that the rapid advances and intersection in biotechnology and “big-data” processing will provide many new possibilities for future tree health management. The TPCP and CPHB have long used genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics and data science to guide control strategies in forest pest and disease management. As part of FABI’s international collaborations, the meeting was informed of a Satellite Laboratory in Applied Chemical Ecology and research programme which was launched in partnership with Natural Resources Canada earlier this year. 

Professor Bernard Slippers, Director of FABI said: “We are thankful for the longstanding support from both industry and government for our research on plant health. This partnership that has been maintained for more than 30 years, together with a passionate focus on excellence in research, training and service, has ensured the development of a truly world class programme. We are thankful and proud of what has been achieved. Such partnerships will be even more important in the world affected by COVID-19, where optimal impact of research investments will be critical to ensure global competitiveness and sustainability of our plant-based industries.”

- Author Morné Booij-Liewes and Namhla Tshisela

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