Desperate for scientists & funds

Investment in agriculture has decreased over the years, but research has become all the more important to stay globally competitive and food-secure, says Agricultural Research Council (ARC) CEO Dr Shadrack Moephuli. Peter Mashala ask him how the ARC plans to increase research efforts and attract investment.
Issue date : 13 March 2009

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Investment in agriculture has decreased over the years, but research has become all the more important to stay globally competitive and food-secure, says Agricultural Research Council (ARC) CEO Dr Shadrack Moephuli.  Peter Mashala ask him how the ARC plans to increase research efforts and attract investment.

How important is research in agriculture, especially to combat high food prices, cut input costs and ensure food security and global competitiveness?
Research into new technology increases our competitiveness on global markets. Through technology we’ve been able to bring down the cost of seed and reduce food prices. South Africa has only about 15% arable land, so we have to come up with innovative ways to make the rest of it agriculturally productive. We also have to find ways to reduce input costs.

Is government investing enough in research and technology?
Government investment isn’t at the level it should be while private sector investment is also very low.

Is the ARC taking any measures to encourage investment?
We’re trying to find innovative ways to increase our baseline allocation from the parliamentary financial grant, and are in discussion with the agriculture department and National Treasury. We’re entering into special research contracts with them to spur investment. We’ve restructured our management system to focus on the customer and to ensure we deliver on time.

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What is the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) 10-year plan and the ARC’s role in it?
The plan looks at how South Africa can build intellectual capital, competitive advantages and market access in the field of science and technology. One way to attain a competitive advantage is by investing in research leading to new products and technologies. We’re spending about 20% of our parliamentary allocation in this area.
We’re also looking at increasing the number of experienced scientists and researchers. Our Professional Development Programme brings graduates into the ARC, but we try encourage them to register for higher degrees.

Does South Africa have enough researchers, agricultural scientists and engineers?
No, neither in the private sector nor in public institutions. What’s also worrying is the number of ageing experienced scientists at our higher education institutions, including our science councils. We must fast-track human capacity building.

How does the ARC do that?
Through our Professional Development Programme. We’re also trying to get the private sector to sponsor the development of young scientists through a project called the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (Thrip), also funded by the Department of Trade and Industry. Thrip brings together the best of South Africa’s researchers, academics and industry players in funding partnerships to improve the quality of products, services and people.

What is your take on genetically modified (GM) food?
Everyone was concerned about GM food 20 years ago, but now nobody even thinks before buying them. New technology can be scary and the key issue is how well we understand and manage it. If it improves people’s lives and the environment, make practices more sustainable and preserves our natural resources, it’s worth using.

How do we ensure people understand technology?
It’s difficult. Unfortunately GM foods have been politicised instead of allowing science to do the explaining, largely because it’s a market access issue rather than a question of whether the technology works. The EU has a lot of GM food on its shelves and it seems we’re being left behind. We should examine what’s good for us and the technology must be properly analysed and regulated.The DST is currently educating people about the advantages of biotechnology via its Public Understanding for Biotechnology unit.

What role will the ARC play in the National Development Agency’s plans to increase black entrepreneurs in agribusiness by 10%, agricultural production by 10% to 15% and trade by 10% to 15%?
We’re not directly involved, but we provide technical expertise and support and we perform quality assurance for exports to ensure safe consumption. We also come up with technologies to reduce the time lag between harvest and the product entering the market. Our main contribution is disseminating information on what to produce and when.

In your 2008/09 business plan, you established a Research and Ethics Committee. What’s the significance of this?
Scientists should use technology ethically and it is important to have an ethics policy and a committee evaluating every research project.

What major research projects are you working on at the moment?
We’re engaged in many projects. We’re focusing on producing cultivars which can adapt to climate change and grow in dry areas. We’re also working on finding solutions to new pests and diseases and also researching biological control. In addition, we’re looking at using technology to sustain our natural resources.

How does the ARC reach farmers in deep rural areas, especially emerging farmers?
Most of our research and experiments are performed on research farms in such areas. We also host workshops, forums, shows, exhibitions and farmer’s days.

Can emerging farmers afford new technology?
New farmers aren’t looking for old cultivars – they want the latest ones so they can be competitive. They’re not interested in the old open-pollinated variety we try to offer them.
Assuming emerging farmers can’t afford a product can be misleading. The issue could be in the packaging. Commercial farmers buy seed in 50kg to 80kg bags, but most emerging farmers don’t have their own transport. Seed companies should sell 10kg bags, which you could transport in taxis.

How can South Africa be transformed from a natural resource-based economy to a sustainable, knowledge-driven one?
Our economy depends heavily on extracting raw materials and exporting them in their unprossessed form. We’re trying to get the agricultural sector to stop depending on primary exports and to add value before exporting. This would generate a greater variety of improved and processed products. For example, rooibos tea is packaged and shipped out as is. We could process, package and brand it first and then sell it internationally.

What does the future hold for agricultural research and technology?
Because of climate change and other major changes in the global economy, we need to ensure food security, but we lack funding. Globally, funding for agricultural research has declined in the past 10 years. But there’s evidence that perceptions are shifting. And young scientists are definitely facing a good future.     |fw