In recognizing the United Nations 2020 International Year of Plant Health (IYPH), the South African National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) hosted a two-day Plant Health Discussion Forum webinar on 10-11 June. This event with the theme “Plant Health in South Africa - threats to biosecurity, biodiversity and food security” was originally planned for 2020 or early 2021 but was delayed due to COVID-19 related complications  FABI researchers participated actively in this important event with Prof. Dave Berger, assisted by Prof. Wijnand Swart (University of the Free State and President of the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology), deeply involved in the development of the programme.  

As the recipient of the NSTF 2020 Plant Health Theme Award, Prof. Mike Wingfield was invited to present the introductory and key-note lecture. His lecture entitled “A global perspective on tree health: Celebrating the United Nations 2020 International Year Of Plant Health” provided a broad ‘brush stroke’ regarding the insect pests and microbial pathogens that affect the health of trees globally. He also highlighted the similarities between the manner in which plant diseases are studied/managed and those relating to human disease, particularly the SARS CoV-2 virus and the disease CoviD-19 that it causes. In doing so, he emphasized the fact that many of the available technologies being used to deal with COVID-19 are being applied in plant pathology but that there are huge possibilities to expand these opportunities. And that this will surely define the future of food security, which is also impacted deeply by the health of trees and forests.  

Professor Wilhelm de Beer presented a lecture “The impact of a tiny beetle and its deadly fungus on South Africa’s forests”  in which he discussed the substantial damage that the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (PSHB) is causing to trees in South Africa. And he emphasized the fact the damage is increasing and is likely to do so in the future. 

In his lecture “Artificial intelligence and the future of crop health monitoring” Prof. Dave Berger, of the MPPI research group and winner of the NSTF 2016 Special Theme Award "Agriculture and Food Security" gave a talk on results using artificial intelligence (deep learning) to identify maize diseases from images of leaf symptoms. His talk also gave a vision for implementation of this kind of precision farming tool countrywide. This can be seen in the nascent Innovation Africa/FABI plant biosecurity hub, which is based on three pillars: (i) Information hub based on TPCP/FABI diagnostic clinic records; (ii) plant health surveillance Apps; and (iii) data processing and prediction tools enhanced by artificial intelligence.