For many centuries, people all over the globe have been fascinated by the origin of species, which factors safeguard their status quo, and where they are headed given probable change – the trifecta of existence, as it were. Although this is often a highly complex endeavour, the endless intrigue in the topic is of no surprise. Investigating biological existence is the most reliable means to help explain life patterns and processes, and in an applied sense, how species can be managed. This year, the annual meeting of the Tree Protection Cooperative Programme (TPCP) was also arranged on the foundation of these fundamentals of existence. In this special meeting, held at the University of Pretoria on 13 and 14 May 2014, the TPCP proudly celebrated its 25th year of advancing science and technology to keep plantation forestry trees healthy. Indeed, the TPCP founder and current director, Prof. Mike Wingfield, highlighted the fact that after a quarter century of uninterrupted operational success, it is relevant to reflect on the origins of the TPCP. Doing so would inevitably stimulate a realization on exactly how far the programme has come in treating and preventing detrimental plantation forestry diseases, what the status quo is of disease and pest research across the world, and where the TPCP will be headed in the future to ensure that a valuable South African economic resource is protected in a rapidly changing environment.

The mission of the TPCP to support all stakeholders in plantation forestry in South Africa was highlighted by having Mr. Patrick Kime, CEO of NCT Ltd as opening speaker for the 25th annual meeting. Mr. Kime gave an insightful review of the value and growth of private-sector timber farming in South Africa. He explained how commercial forestry in South Africa has changed over the years from being dominated by a few large companies, to a multi-faceted collage of plantation owners, ranging from major international companies (such as Sappi and Mondi) to small scale farmers, some of whom own as little as one hectare of plantation. This wood and pulp producing industry has great future prospects and is highly complementary to the dynamic South African farming economy. However, the changing landscape of plantation forestry in South Africa has brought additional challenges in terms of tree health, as neglecting pest and disease management in the smallest plantation can have an enormous impact on neighbouring commercial plantations. Keeping trees healthy on the smallest tree growing areas is, therefore, as important as ever before. This is clearly where the TPCP plays a major role, with 25 years of research and development support to the industry. What is significant is that all the commercial forestry companies, as well as all the cooperatives to which the small growers belong, contribute financially to the TPCP and thus benefit from the ‘open information to all’ policy within the programme. 

The annual meeting of the TPCP is one of the vehicles used to communicate the latest research results to the industry partners. This year the meetings were attended by more than 100 visitors, which included foresters, tree breeders, plantation and nursery managers, as well as higher level managers representing all the major role players in commercial forestry in the country. Furthermore, as has been the custom for TPCP meetings over the years, some of the world’s top forest biologists were invited to address the TPCP stakeholders on the current trends in pest and pathogen outbreaks, and the techniques with which to curb their spread. Notable in this regard was Prof. Manuel Mota, a nematologist from the University of Évora in Portugal, who alluded to the fact that the Pine wood nematode (Bursaphelenchus xylophilus), which causes the devastating pine wilt disease, has never been eradicated from any country once it has established there. Professor Mota went on further to show how this nematode has the potential to increase in vigour under climate change.

There was a “golden thread” in most of the talks held this year – as a country South Africa requires an improved understanding of species arriving in the country accidentally. Because we live in an era of extensive advances in world travel, we must focus on trade-pathways; quarantine all plant material as a ‘preventative step’ to keep trees healthy. Following this approach, Prof. Jolanda Roux discussed the South Africa-China Tree Protection Programme (CFTPP) and highlighted how collaboration between nations provides a massive leap forward in ensuring that up-and-coming timber producing countries effectively manage their plantations for pests and pathogens, thereby reducing the potential pest resource pool, and subsequent pest or pathogen “spillover” effects.

Also invited to address the TPCP was Prof. Treena Burgess from Murdoch University in Australia. Prof. Burgess gave a highly thought-provoking talk on the increased frequency of new Phytophthora pathogens globally, and subsequent new disease combinations that are being found. She pointed out how important Next Generation Sequencing can be for species community analyses and that knowing which species exist in ecosystems aids in the early detection and focused management of tree diseases. This is in line with the current notion of how important genetics and genomics have become in better understanding tree biology and ecology. 

Concerning field extension, it was clear from the meetings that the advancement of science and technology over the past couple of decades is strongly and positively correlated with the advancement of disease diagnosis and treatment. Philosophically, this is a great feat for mankind in its quest for sustaining livelihoods. Perhaps this is also the great inspiration to never stop trying to find the solutions to problems that arise as we seek to advance the socio-economic structure of South Africa. In this light, it was pointed out by Prof. Bernard Slippers that the current biological control facilities used by the TPCP were not sufficient relative to the increased frequency of pest admissions from industry. Additional new facilities will need to be established if the current biocontrol successes are to be continued.

All in all, after 25 years, it is clear that the TPCP has had a huge impact, and continues to be the world leader in keeping plantation trees healthy. Prof. Mike Wingfield said that he believed the key to success of the TPCP in this first  quarter century arose from being engaged with stakeholders, excellence in research, and, of course, having fun. Prof. Brenda Wingfield was of the same mind, emphasizing that academic excellence is a major driver of an “industry-serving” programme. She also accentuated the fact that the research pipeline occupies more than just basic research, and that there is usually a gap in innovation and development of basic research for applied purposes (the ‘innovation chasm’). This innovation chasm is arguably one of the greatest drawbacks in academia today. However, after 25 years, there can be no argument that the TPCP is bridging that gap quite successfully, and it will be doing so for a very long time to come. A wonderful case in point is the Sirex research programme, where there have been successes across the whole research pipeline (basic knowledge-innovation and development-industry application). The pipeline is inherently complementary; how else would one encapsulate the complexity of biological existence? This is the central tenet of the TPCP.

by Dr Casper Crous 


Top: Patrick Kime, CEO of NCT with Mike Wingfield, Director of the TPCP.

Middle: Prof Manuel Mota from the University of Évora in Portugal, presenting his talk on the global impact of the pinewood nematode.

Bottom: An attentive audience of industry stakeholders, researchers and postgraduate students of the TPCP.

An extensive collection of photographs covering all the events over the two day symposium can be viewed here, and the programme with titles of presentations during the symposium is attached as a pdf.