Professor Bernard Slippers, director at the Forestry and Biotechnology (FABI) Institute at the University of Pretoria spoke to Timber iQ about the key challenges and opportunities in the forestry sector of South Africa and how the university aims to bridge the two.

Professor Bernard Slippers, director at the Forestry and Biotechnology (FABI) Institute at the University of Pretoria. Photo by Leon Louw

Professor Bernard Slippers, director at the Forestry and Biotechnology (FABI) Institute at the University of Pretoria. Photo by Leon Louw

Following is an excerpt from the article, the full version can be read in the June issue of Timber iQ magazine. (Click here to subscribe to the publication)

“We need to understand that the business model for universities and the private sector is fundamentally different. A university’s funding is obtained from student training, capacity development and the research it produces. These functions are subsidised, and the cycles are long. A doctoral student, for example, might have a three- or four-year cycle. The private sector needs to respond to investor or market requirements, and these are not always aligned to university cycles. So, there is a potential misalignment. But there is also common ground, because we are all part of the same economy and of the same society, in which our successes and failures are tied.

“Universities are public entities that have a social responsibility to contribute to societies, so we can’t make an excuse and say that our business model is different and that we can’t contribute if there are immediate pressures on our industry or government partners.

“FABI’s focus is very much on the common ground and we look to develop programmes and platforms that speak to the common interest that exists between government, industry, and university needs. I think we have been successful in providing a bridge that connects these sectors successfully over the years.

“For example, let’s take the threat of pests and diseases – a core focus for us. The fundamental research that is needed to develop understanding and tools in this area has long-term cycles. Yet, when there is an outbreak of a pest or disease, the business sector needs to respond immediately. At FABI we aim to provide a bridge of this divide by providing short term responses to industry needs, in turn, industry invests in long-term capacity and knowledge development within this space.

“We make sure that capacity development is relevant to the problems our industry typically deals with, or that we can predict that our industry will deal with in the future. It is critical to predict and prepare for factors that we are relatively certain will affect the industry in the coming years and build the necessary capacity to respond when they do. If there was an outbreak of a new pest, for example, we ideally need to have mechanisms in place to respond immediately. In some cases, for instance, we might need to produce biological control products if industry does not have the capacity to do so.”

What, in your view, are the biggest threats facing the forestry industry?

“The threats encompass an entire spectrum of interrelated factors, from the internal politics of the country to international markets. But those are obviously not all spaces that we work in. The areas in which we work has to do with the production side of forestry. In other words, the base material, genetics, the breeding, and protection of plants. This also includes threats like pests and diseases, climate change, and various other biotic and abiotic influences on the production base.

“The species mixes that we have bred for many years might in the future become less useful because of how weather patterns shift and change the responses of those plants to its biotic environment. One reason is because the interaction with pests and diseases that are already present is likely to change because of climate variation.

“This is for two reasons. Firstly, the plants will experience stress in a different manner and respond to that environment differently. Secondly, the lifecycle of pests and pathogens might change through, for example, shortening lifecycles which translates into higher numbers per season or more cycles per season, or pathogens that now affect trees in areas where they did not previously exist. Those factors could also interact to increase the threats.

One needs to remember that climate change is not only driving things necessarily in a negative direction. You might have higher rainfall patterns in some areas. The same pests and pathogens that currently do well in certain areas might not do well in those areas in the future. There is thus still uncertainty of how all that balances out, but it certainly is a threat that we need to keep an eye on, and we need to try and understand as best we can so that we can prepare to respond.”