Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of AgriSciences, in collaboration with Agri SA, recently hosted agricultural industry role players to discuss the future of agricultural research ideals, related partnerships with SU and the South African academia in general.
More than 70 representatives from 60 industries, businesses and associations in the South African agricultural sector attended the full-day session. Industry leaders made presentations about their respective sectors and their strategy in terms of research.
They were able to highlight evolving problems they believe experts need to address. Among them were representatives of agribusinesses, the animal feed sector, the wine and forestry industries, meat and grain producers and the deciduous fruit industry. The animal production sector was represented by leaders in the production of livestock, pigs, milk, wool and game farming.
Panel members were asked to report on how they currently handle partnerships and research within their respective industries, organizations, businesses or service sectors, and particularly in terms of their relationship with SU. In a follow-up session, panellists were given the opportunity to highlight future challenges in research and innovation.
Sustaining profitability amid environmental problems
Emerging issues such as climate change, a greater reliance on technology and ways to sustain profitability amid environmental problems such as droughts and the outbreak of diseases and pests were highlighted. Many referred to the concept of Centres of Excellence and consortia which concentrate expertise in order to obtain better outputs. Several speakers challenged universities to deliver students who can apply their knowledge, and be open-minded about new ideas and problems.
A need was also expressed for short courses that allow people in the industry to stay up to date with the latest trends, and to share information stemming from research projects.
The panel sessions were led by Dr Pieter Prinsloo of Agri SA and Prof Danie Brink, dean of the SU Faculty of AgriSciences. Among the panellists were Richard Krige (Winter Cereal Trust), Theuns Laas (Red Meat Abattoir Association), Francois Strydom (SENWES), Piet van Zyl (York Timbers), Nick Dicey (HORTGRO), De Wet Boshoff (Animal Feed Manufacturers’ Association), Gerard Martin (Winetech), Sean Walsh (Kaap Agri), Dr Vaughan Hattingh (Citrus Research International), Dr Marinda Visser (Grain SA), Francois Siebrits (South African Association of Pig Producers), Giovanni Sale (Sappi) and André Schreuder (Villa Crop).
"I realise that one opens oneself up to criticism by holding such a day of introspection. However, it is of greater importance to me to know what SU can do better, differently and more innovatively to promote the agricultural sector as a whole. That is why we wanted to hear the voices and opinions of key role players in our industry," said Prof Danie Brink, dean of the SU Faculty of AgriSciences, afterwards.
SA universities have a collective responsibility
According to Brink, issues such as funding shortages, the dilemma of doing practical versus fundamental research and the training of students who will be of value to the industry is not unique to a leading university such as SU. He said that South African universities are facing major political, economic, environmental and technological challenges. Therefore, academics from other institutions such as the Universities of the Free State, Rhodes and Pretoria and the Agricultural Research Council were also represented.
"South African academics have a collective responsibility to successfully deliver research to the agricultural sector that is relevant and sustainably done,” he said. “Amid a decline in state funding, external partnerships are becoming increasingly important. We need to learn how to do more with what we already have and work smarter with it."
Also present were Prof Eugene Cloete, SU's vice-rector: Research, innovation and postgraduate studies, as well as senior faculty members from agriSciences, economic and business sciences, engineering and science. This strategic move was in line with several presenters' predictions that the answers to many industry issues may not necessarily lie only in traditional agricultural sciences disciplines.
Filling the innovation, technological gap
In light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technological advances are playing an increasingly important role. In this, computer scientists, consumer and logistics experts and engineers play an important role.
Agr iSA CEO Omri van Zyl described the day as a "first opportunity for academics and the private sector to come together to talk about research and innovation, and the gaps that exist."
"It's fundamentally important for the South African agricultural sector to remain competitive, and research and development play an important role in doing so," he added.
He believes that the productivity of the sector as a whole can be increased if the private sector and research institutions are better aligned and a strategic approach to research output and industry needs is used.
"This will also improve the depth available in our industries, producers and businesses," he says.
In his summary, Prof Mohammad Karaan, former dean of the SU Faculty of AgriSciences and member of the National Planning Commission, challenged the various interest groups to be more than just critical. They need to think innovatively about future-oriented training and research partnerships that support agricultural development in South Africa.