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Govt launches National Biosecurity Hub at University of Pretoria

11th October 2022

By: Marleny Arnoldi

Deputy Editor Online

     

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The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) on October 11 launched the National Biosecurity Hub, at the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Future Africa campus, to support the prevention and reduction of crop and animal disease in South Africa.

Comprising industry, academia, science councils and government role-players, the hub will contribute to sustainable agricultural production and the safe trade of agricultural products, services and processes.

The hub forms part of the DSI's Agricultural Bioeconomy Innovation Partnership Programme (ABIPP), which is, in turn, managed through the department’s Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).

ABIPP currently has a budget of about R4-million a year to conduct its work.

UP and Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) are key partners of the hub.

The bioeconomy programme is responsible for funding, co-funding, coordinating, facilitating and managing multi-institutional research programmes – which are focused on increased productivity, improved food security and sustainable rural development.

Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology dean Professor Sanil Maharaj said during the hub’s launch event that the hub would draw on leading research from global institutions and play a role in increasing market access, economic growth and job creation in the country, through increased national sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) capacity, and expanded knowledge of existing and new biosecurity threats.

He added that the hub would ensure that South Africa was more empowered during times of disease outbreaks, as it would be able to make quicker and more effective decisions.

With foot and mouth disease, for example, which has been prevalent in South Africa for two years, the hub can offer better control and monitoring systems, as well as greater assurance to trade partners who impose bans on South Africa’s imports.

DSI biotechnology director Mineshree Jugmohan-Naidu noted that the hub had key policy linkages to the country’s National Bioeconomy Strategy, which was approved by Cabinet in 2013, and the Agricultural and Agroprocessing Master Plan, which also speaks to food security.

She said some of the most glaring challenges affecting agriculture are food security and climate change, as well as pests and diseases, some of which arise as a result of climate change.

The vision of the National Biosecurity Hub is to be relevant across all agriculture and forestry sectors and to significantly increase the capacity currently available to the SPS regulatory authorities of South Africa.

It will provide research and information services to the public and private sectors, with a view to meet SPS requirements of international trade and strengthen biosecurity.

The hub will leverage human resources, financial resources and infrastructure from the public and private sectors to support the national biosecurity system. To this end, a number of memorandum of understandings have been signed between the DSI, DALRRD, Grain SA, CropWatch Africa, South African Grain Laboratory and PhytoSolutions Consultancy.

The hub will be overseen by a steering committee comprising various stakeholders, including scientists, while a National Biosecurity Hub e-journal will document the works and findings of the hub. 

Moreover, Jugmohan-Naidu explained the hub has been a long time in the making, with the idea of a national biosecurity hub being born out of the work of the Plant Health Consortium. The consortium has since 2016 been investigating pathogen biology and disease detection diagnoses and surveillance.

She mentioned that the hub would use various digital tools and technology to conduct its work and would complement existing work by the DALRRD in respect of movement control, vaccination and traceability.

It will also build on existing works of the DSI and the TIA, notably the TokaBio point-of-care veterinary diagnostic technology developed by the parties in 2021, with support from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Meanwhile, multilateral treaty network International Plant Protection Convention says plants account for 80% of the food people eat and produce 98% of the air people breathe. However, as much as 40% of plant crops are lost every year owing to pests and diseases. This amounts to more than $220-billion of losses in agricultural trade globally.

Invasive pests have increased by 40% in the last 40 years, while more people are going hungry in the world – about 828-million people globally faced hunger in 2021.

Addressing delegates at the launch, Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza said the National Biosecurity Hub's launch comes at a time when food security is a global concern, especially owing to recent shocks having been experienced. She referred to Covid-19, food logistics challenges and the Ukraine war and its impact on food and input prices as examples of these shocks.

She noted that biosecurity required an integrated approach to prevent the spread of pests and diseases in the country, beyond just government efforts.

Didiza added that dispute of SPS measures had become a key feature of international trade, and impacted on South Africa’s competitiveness. It therefore remained important for the country to continue strengthening its biosecurity policy and regulatory framework, as well as ensure better responses to pests and diseases through information technology, knowledge and infrastructure.

She highlighted that South Africa would have to sharpen its biosecurity efforts if it was to conduct more trade regionally, as the African Continental Free Trade Area takes effect.

A panel comprising industry organisations Fruit SA, Grain SA, Red Meat Producers’ Organisation, Agricultural Research Council and South African Poultry Association agreed that coordinated efforts to improve the country’s biosecurity would bode well for the agricultural industry but warned that a continuous team effort would be needed to realise the hub’s vision.

Innovation Africa director Marinda Visser affirmed that the hub stands ready to coordinate industry biosecurity efforts and usher in new innovation.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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