Wanted: the plant varieties that changed your life

SABPA is looking for Africa's most impactful plant varieties. Photo: Beth MacDonald/Unsplash

SAPBA is looking for Africa's most impactful plant varieties as part of a campaign to highlight the important role plant breeders play in agriculture. Photo: Beth MacDonald/Unsplash

Whether you’re a farmer or a consumer – if a plant has made your business more profitable or your life easier, the Southern African Plant Breeders Association (SAPBA) wants to hear about it.

The organisation has put out a call for nominations of Africa’s most remarkable and impactful plant varieties, from peppadews and butternuts that are easier to peel to the silage maize used by dairy farmers. And there are no limitations on the types of plant varieties that can be nominated, Toinette van Rooyen, plant breeder at Starke Ayers and SAPBA president, tells Food For Mzansi.

Through this campaign, SAPBA hopes to hear from farmers and consumers themselves about which plant varieties are having the biggest impact and why, and to increase awareness around the role plant breeders play in agriculture. It follows a successful 2020 campaign to identify the continent’s twenty most influential plant breeders.

Van Rooyen says, “It can be any plant variety. Things like blueberries, peppadews, butternuts that are easier to peel, lemons without pips, tomatoes that stay fresh for longer, silage maize used by the dairy farmers, rooibos tea that we all enjoy, grape varieties used for wine, ornamental flowers that we either plant in our gardens or display in our houses, or even trees that are used for the paper we print on.”

Plant breeding, farming and food security 

Van Rooyen explains that, as an organisation, SAPBA’s mandate is to provide the public with more information around the plant-breeding community.

“SAPBA is an association that represents plant breeders and the plant-breeding community in Southern Africa.

“We strive to inform our members about local and international events, the latest research and career and study opportunities. We also help to educate the general public, especially students and schoolchildren, on what plant breeding is all about and what plant breeders do.

Toinette van Rooyen is a plant breeder at Starke Ayers and SAPBA president. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“Plant breeders are part of the chain that stretches from the farmer to the consumer buying fresh produce from the shelves in supermarkets or fresh markets. Through ancient and modern techniques, plant breeding is necessary to develop resistance to pests, droughts and environmental stress conditions. Plant breeders help to secure and promote food security and a sustainable future.”

With its 2020 campaign to identify the continent’s most influential plant breeders, SAPBA included professionals from a variety of agricultural and scientific organisations.

These were professionals like Dr Sunette Laurie, a scientist at the Agricultural Research Council whose work around the breeding of sweet potatoes contributed to the food security and alleviation of malnutrition among poor farmers. Another was Prof. Hussein Shimelis, crop science chair at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, whose research into crop genetics includes breeding wheat to be drought tolerant, and breeding improved rice varieties. 

The 2021 campaign has a more direct focus, though. It is meant to showcase exactly how plant breeding fits into the life of the ordinary person. “This campaign [puts] a spotlight on items that we all use and buy without realising that the plant breeder is or was involved in the development of that specific product,” says Van Rooyen.

Send your nominations, Mzansi

Van Rooyen especially encourages farmers to get into contact with the plant breeders whose seeds they favour. She says that plant breeders usually work very closely with the marketing departments at the companies for which they work, so farmers can easily get a hold of them by simply contacting the company that supplies their seeds.

Plant breeders create plant varieties that are more resistant to adverse weather conditions and diseases, as well as higher in nutrition. Photo: Supplied/Unsplash

“All the plant breeders I know love to go out and visit farms and speak to farmers, because that is how a plant breeder will know what the farmer’s needs are and what we as plant breeders need to focus on.

“So please, if you’re are a farmer, feel free to invite your [seed] company’s plant breeder to your farm for a lively discussion on plant breeding and how we can make sure that food security is something that we all work towards.”

The winners of the 2021 campaign will be announced at SAPBA’s 14th biannual symposium, which takes place from 6 to 9 March 2022. Held in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, the symposium offers a chance for everyone in the plant-breeding industry to convene. “This is an opportunity for all people involved in the plant-breeding industry, not just plant breeders, to get together and to discuss current issues in the plant-breeding sector as well as dreams that we have for the future.”

To nominate your favourite plant variety, send a short motivation letter of no more than 1 500 words to toinette.vanrooyen@starkayres.com or member@sapba.co.za. Include a description of how the variety has made an impact and what it is that makes it exceptional. If available, add the name of the breeder and the company responsible for breeding the variety. Nominations close on 1 December 2021.

ALSO READ: Plant breeder advances food security in 12 countries

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