Page 92 - University of Pretoria RESEARCH REVIEW 2016
P. 92

PLANT PRODUCTION and food security
 90 | UP Research Review 2016
“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change, recognise that we can no longer look at food security and the management of natural resources separately. Both agreements call for a coherent and integrated approach to sustainability across all agricultural sectors (including forestry) and food systems.”1
The University of Pretoria’s research strength in biotechnology for plant health management, and its capacity to develop human capital in this domain, represent a resource of critical importance for the future development of Africa, as well as for safeguarding its current systems and rich biological resources.
Plant health is a key priority for the attainment of a number of the goals identified in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030. This is because plant health is essential for human health, economic growth and decent work, the eradication of hunger and poverty, and safeguarding the environment and natural resources.
The ecological transformations brought about by climate change and globalisation are escalating plant health problems to a level that is almost unmanageable. For example, before the mid-1980s new forestry insect pests emerged at a rate of about one per decade, but now appear roughly every 1.4 years. In agriculture, the situation is worse. The fall armyworm, a pest of maize and other cereals, spread from Nigeria to South Africa in less than a year. If uncontrolled, it could decimate staple crops throughout Africa and cripple agriculture on the continent. Compared to insect pests, the rate at which new microbial pathogens emerge and spread is even higher.
Because of these problems, most of the production systems that we rely on for our food and fibre needs are failing, and fragile natural ecosystems are collapsing. Industries and governments worldwide are grappling with ways to deal with the crisis.
One solution that features prominently is biotechnology. We live in an era where biotechnological tools and innovations provide unprecedented power to understand the organisms affecting plant health, the mechanisms through which plants respond to these, the pathways by which these organisms move, and points in the system (from genes to logistics) that can be manipulated to reduce the impact. Emerging opportunities in tools such as genomics, gene editing and ‘reverse’ chemical ecology, to name but a few, provide powerful opportunities to ensure that we optimise our ability to manage the emerging plant health problems threatening our environment and society.
In an ever-changing and interconnected world, local solutions on their own can no longer deal with plant health problems. Much greater focus needs to be placed on developing global strategies to monitor pest and pathogen movement and to mount appropriate outbreak responses, as well as to fully harness the powerful opportunities that new technologies offer. Local capacity needs to be linked more effectively into international knowledge networks. Similarly, partnerships between the research community, industries, government and societies, in general, will need to be stronger than ever.
 1 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation Director-General, José Graziano da Silva

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