North-West University botanist Prof. Jacques Berner is motivated to dedicate his time and energy to mentoring youngsters into a field that is regarded as technical and complex. He aims to woo more young black people into the plant sciences industry.
Berner holds a PhD in botany and works as an associate professor in the natural and agricultural sciences faculty. Through training and different workshops, Berner unpacks the pros and cons to many young people, including the students at the university. He also supervises students in the field of plant sciences.
He wishes to see young people from all walks of life be actively involved in the industry and taking up leading roles. Berner believes that young people are being drawn to the field because they realise how crucial it is becoming to solve climate change-related challenges.
Berner emphasises that young people entering the plant sciences have to be game changers. Food For Mzansi asked him to elaborate.
Tiisetso Manoko: What prompted you to begin mentoring young people in plant sciences?
Prof. Jacques Berner: Currently, I do believe there is a healthy interest of young people interested in studying plant sciences. The subject of plant sciences is an extremely vast subject field that includes subject areas like ecology, medicinal plants, plant biotechnology, plant and crop physiology, and plant biochemistry. The study of plant sciences will greatly aid in the goal of ensuring food security and responsible management of our plant [heritage] with all its resources.
From interacting with these young people, do you think the interest is there and what is your message to them?
The importance of plant science has never been greater. The world’s rising and increasingly rich human population needs ample safe and nutritious food, shelter, clothing, fibre and renewable energy, as well as solutions to climate change-related issues while maintaining a healthy environment. I think that is what drives them towards knowing more.
My message to them is that the worldwide concerns I raised above can only be addressed with a solid foundation in plant biology and ecology, and the translation of that knowledge into field-based solutions. They need to be game changers.
Where do you think the industry needs development the most?
South Africa is dependent on a limited number of grain crops for food security. The increasing frequency with which extreme environmental stress occurs, places enormous pressure on the agricultural industry for sustainable food security. It is, therefore, empirical that the agricultural sector has to expand its crop diversity to include crops that have better characteristics to tolerate extreme weather conditions.
What has been your greatest achievement or highlight in your academic journey thus far?
The biggest highlight of my academic journey so far was working with one of the leading scientists in the world on the application of chlorophyll a fluorescence to assess plant vitality. This is a non-invasive technique to evaluate the photosynthetic efficiency of plants.
How is Mzansi’s agriculture sector being affected by the change in weather patterns? Is the crop production industry already reacting to it?
The introduction of climate-smart crops is one way of mitigating the threats of climate change. The idea of introducing climate-smart crops is not to replace current commercial crops but to expand the options of crops that farmers can plant during adverse periods. An additional advantage of these crops is that they can be produced in marginal agro-systems, where other crops generally fail.
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