The United Nations designated 12 May the International Day of Plant Health (IDPH) to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect biodiversity and the environment, and boost economic development. The University of Pretoria joined the rest of the world in celebrating the IDPH on 12 May under the theme: Plant Health Innovation for Food Security. This celebration brought together 90 participants from the University of Pretoria (academics and students), industry, research institutions and government. The IDPH was officially opened by Prof. Barend Erasmus, the Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS). His talk was followed by keynote presentations from Professors Lise Korsten and Sanushka Naidoo from the University of Pretoria; Dr Joyene Isaacs, the Chairperson of Board of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), Mr Mashudu Silimela, the Deputy Director, International Plant Health Matters under the Directorate of Plant Health at the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), Mr Jaco Marais, the Product Manager at Biorational Product, Philagro South Africa, and Dr Mesfin Gossa, a Postdoctoral researcher at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI). Topics discussed included innovation/new technologies for plant health and food security; challenges encountered in ensuring plant health and food security; plant health management strategies; food security and food safety; policies and regulations; capacity development; and finally understanding and managing forest pests for food security. A panel discussion comprising a series of topics surrounding plant health culminated the proceedings of the main event. The panelists included the keynote speakers and Prof. Cobus Visagie, from FABI. The overall impressions from the discussions on plant health were:

  • Credible data and trusted knowledge brokers are critical for sustainable plant health.
  • Ethical leaders with high moral values are needed to take agriculture forward.
  • Knowing the key players along the food production chain, including farmers and what they require from the scientific community is important to produce healthy food.
  • Researchers have a role to play in influencing policies that govern plant health.
  • There is a need to harness the current breeding technologies including speed breeding and gene editing tools such as the CRISPR-Cas system to reduce the plant generation time and to enhance disease resistance within plants.
  • Alternative and effective plant disease management strategies such as biological control should be embraced for crop protection.

In addition to the keynote presentations and panel discussion, the day also included an exhibition officiated by industry partners including Inqaba Biotec™, Plennegy, SANSOR, Thermo Fisher Scientific South Africa, ARC, Sakata Seed Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd, and several research programmes within the department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology (BGM), FABI, and the Plant Pathology, Medicinal Plant Sciences, and the Plant Biotechnology divisions within the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences (DePSS).

The day’s celebration also hosted a learners’ program which catered for approximately 120 grades ten and eleven learners from St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls and The Deutsche Internationale Schule Pretoria, collectively. These learners attended seminars given by Dr Markus Wilken and Dr Khumbuzile Bophela on career guidance in plant biotechnology and plant pathology, respectively. These were followed by tours in different affiliated laboratories and institutes within DePSS, FABI and BGM in the NAS Faculty. The IDPH was organized and sponsored by DePSS, FABI, BGM, and the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics (CMEG). The external sponsors for the event included Inqaba Biotec™, Syngenta and Plennegy. The organizing team included Dr David Nsibo, Dr Khumbuzile Bophela, Dr Tshimangadzo Ramakuwela, Dr Dawit Kidanemariam, Ms. Jane Fourie, and postgraduate students Fanele Mnguni and Nhlonipho Ngubane. Other members that played a significant role in organizing the learners’ program were Dr Neriman Yilmaz, Ms. Renate Zipfel, Dr David Read and Ms. Zama Zulu.