Professor Bernard Slippers, director at FABI. Photo by Leon Louw

Professor Bernard Slippers, director at FABI. Photo by Leon Louw

The Forestry and Biotechnology (FABI) Institute at the University of Pretoria has for many years been at the forefront of research on the forestry sector. Professor Bernard Slippers, director at FABI, spoke to Leon Louw.

Professor Slippers please give us a bit of background about FABI and its importance and function in the South African timber industry.

FABI is an inter-disciplinary post-graduate and research institute. It links departments and units ranging from Genetics and Entomology to Soil Science, Chemistry, and other Agriculture and Forest Biotechnology disciplines. In the last few years, we have also increasingly interacted with Engineering and Computer Science.

Across forestry and agriculture, we increasingly use data science and sensing technologies as an essential part of our research. These are becoming important tools in the measurement of trends and in the decisions made in industry too.

The Institute used to be housed linked primarily to the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. Although this is still the case today, it is now hosted within the Innovation Africa@UP platform, which is shared between Faculties, and increasingly in our case with the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment, and IT.

I believe the institute is more than 23 years old?

Yes, that is correct. The Institute has a long historical link with the forestry industry. The University of the Free State’s Tree Protection Cooperative Programme (TPCP) formed the foundation for the establishment of FABI. The TPCP is a cooperative that links all the major forestry companies in South Africa and through organisations such as Forestry South Africa also links with and serves small growers. Government is also represented on the board and we engage with them on a continuous basis. So, it really connects research, policy, and the industry and with that capacity development.

What is your own background, and how has that changed over the years?

I have an original training in plant pathology, microbiology, and molecular biology. However, over the years, and perhaps because of the interdisciplinary nature of the institute, I have engaged more and more with other fields. For example, today, entomology and chemistry form a prominent part of what I do. But the growth in sensor and data technologies mean that I am increasingly involved with research in those areas as well. We continuously grow in this interdisciplinary environment in which we work.

What would you regard as the key challenges and opportunities in the forestry sector of South Africa and how does the university aim to bridge the two?

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.

How serious is the threat of pests and diseases?

A definite trend over the past two or more decades is a consistent and almost exponential rise in the number of introduced invasive pests and diseases that are moving around the world. Eucalyptus and Pinus trees are spread widely across the world which acts like a broad net that catches pests and diseases and helps them spread beyond their natural distribution.

The moment a pest, for example from Australia, finds a home in a new country, it is very predictable that other regions around the world will deal with it in the coming years. Once a pest has escaped its native area of distribution and finds a home in a new country, typically the factors that control its population is also unhinged and those populations can increase rapidly, which increases it chances of moving to the next area.

Green Pine trees. Photo by Brandon Montrone from Pexels

Green Pine trees. Photo by Brandon Montrone from Pexels

We have seen cases where a new insect pest that nobody has ever seen before appears in Israel, and within eight years that insect spread to every corner of the world where Eucalyptus trees are grown. We are seeing a trend of increasing movement of this kind.

The problem is that to breed for resistance or to develop mechanisms to deal with a new pest takes years. If you deal with one new pest every once in a while, you have time to respond, but if you are dealing with a new pest every year or two, one simply does not have the time to continuously change practices, to breed for resistance or to develop treatments.

There is a real threat that this escalation in the numbers of pests could overwhelm the mechanisms we have to deal with them. We have seen this with Covid-19. Unfortunately, such impacts on plant health can be as devastating. There are examples with pests and diseases in different parts of the world have completely removed certain plant species from ecosystems, sometimes across its native distribution.

How should we deal with those threats?

We have to be prepared. There must be foresight and early warning mechanisms in place. We must have plans in place of how one might respond when the predictable things happen. You cannot predict everything, unfortunately, but there are some major patterns that are consistent.

It is critical for us to build and strengthen structures that will give us an ability to respond to these future happenings, both through local capacity and through strong international networks. There is no way we can deal with this global threat alone – neither as individual companies, nor as a country. It is essential that we build not only the national networks amongst sectors such as academia, government, and industry, but also the international networks that will allow us to do that. Those are some of the things that we focus on at FABI and where the value lies that we provide the industry with.

How do pests and pathogens affect the quality of timber?

Not all fungi that infect wood will affect the structural quality of the timber. The value of the wood can be affected if infecting fungi stains the wood. Some insects that tunnel in wood and fungi that degrade wood, will damage or weaken the wood structure. Wood can be treated to prevent such damage.