The 33rd annual meeting of the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme (TPCP) and DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Plant Health Biotechnology (CPHB) was held as an in-person meeting at Future Africa on the University of Pretoria’s Innovation Africa @UP Campus on 10-11 May. Held as a hybrid event, the symposium linked participants virtually from as far afield as Australia, Chile, China, New Zealand, and the USA, while guests from all around South Africa, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia and Ethiopia attended the symposium in person. The venue was buzzing with activity as many industry and research colleagues took the opportunity to catch up and reflect on the past three years since the last in-person symposium.

Transdisciplinary research was at the core of the event and the implementation of cutting-edge technologies in research projects at FABI was apparent at the symposium, with LAMP PCR, Snoet (a prototype wireless multisensor), SmWoef (a robotic ‘dog’), online demonstrations of the BioSecurity Africa app, the Information Hub, artificial intelligence and machine learning and Unmanned Air Vehicles (‘drones’) being some of the technologies discussed and showcased by numerous speakers. It is this strong focus on transdisciplinary research partnerships with (amongst others) the University of Pretoria’s School of Engineering and School of Information Technology, the establishment of ‘satellite labs’ and collaboration with various other industry and research partners that has allowed much of this technology to be introduced into FABI’s research programmes. While technology took centre stage, traditional strengths in basic and applied biological science were also in evidence during many of the presentations, showing that strong research programmes maintain a healthy balance between these different aspects.

The industry guest speaker was Mr Danny Knoesen, General Manager of the NCT Forestry Co-operative Ltd. whose presentation South African forestry: A market perspective gave a broad market overview of the domestic forestry industry from the growers’ perspective. The forestry sector employs 147,000 people and represents a R49,9 billion investment and that yields annual exports worth R24,7 billion. He also highlighted the challenges the industry faces specifically with rail transport and harbour loading and berthing due to declining infrastructure and the favouring of commodities such as coal for transport and loading – this at a time when there is growth in export opportunities for (especially) wood chips.

Sessions were divided into themes that gave a broad overview of the research being conducted at FABI, as well as the collaborations with local and international partners and transdisciplinary research activities. Several students and postdocs also presented five-minute ‘speed talks’. Guest speakers included Dr Brett Summerell (Director: Research & Chief Botanist at the Australian Institute of Botanical Science. Australia), Dr Carlos Rodas (Forest Health Protection Programme, Smurfit-Kappa, Colombia), Prof. Caterina Villari (Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, University of Georgia, USA) and Prof. Wynand Steyn (Engineering 4.0, Head of the School of Engineering, University of Pretoria), Dr Anna Bosman, Dr Vukosi Marivate and Prof. Trudi Joubert.

FABI was congratulated by industry members on their dedication to maintain as much or more contact with stakeholders during the COVID-19 pandemic while also putting in place health protocols for field trips that ensured no infection by team members while on these trips.

It was not all work. The social interactions between sessions and during the event dinner is always key to building relationships, and having fun too. The quiz was back and this year the trophy was shared by the Mondi and Sappi teams who accepted the trophy before everyone moved to the dining hall to enjoy a gala dinner. Visitors were also given the opportunity to visit the FABI Biocontrol Centre and the Institute’s Hatfield campus facilities following the end of the two day symposium.

The meeting was followed by the Board meeting of the TPCP, site visits to labs and other facilities and meetings of working groups on a number of projects.

Overall this was one of the best attended TPCP meetings ever, highly successful in terms of sharing information, getting inputs into our work and strengthening networks. The meeting is a key event on the calendar of the forestry industry, and an illustration of what the heartbeat of such a successful industry-university-government partnership looks like.