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Plant Disease Clinic Stellenbosch’s new laboratory to help with development of sustainable agricultural production

The Plant Disease Clinic (PDC) Stellenbosch celebrated the official opening of its new laboratory at the Paul van der Bijl building on the Welgevallen experimental farm on 15 April 2024. The PDC consists of a team of skilled plant pathologists who employ diverse methods, including visual inspections, laboratory examinations, and molecular diagnostics, to pinpoint pathogens, pests, and environmental triggers associated with unhealthy plants. The Clinic thus plays a pivotal role in advancing plant disease diagnoses, and documenting and analysing emerging plant diseases. Altogether this fosters the development of sustainable agricultural production and safeguards local crop health and productivity.

Prof. Danie Brink, Dean of Stellenbosch University’s (SU) AgriSciences faculty, opened the event which was attended by guests from various agricultural industries as well as the University. He introduced the Faculty of AgriSciences, highlighting its research and innovation strategy, which spans across plant health, agricultural economics, animal production, sustainability, food systems, and plant improvement. Agri-informatics brings together all these focus areas.

Plant health specifically, is where the PDC plays a key role since it encompasses diagnostics, prevention and biosecurity. Prof. Brink emphasised the importance of the PDC, which has been a bottom-up initiative of the Department of Plant Pathology. The PDC is a good example of where the Faculty has invested in people (expertise and capacity), infrastructure and partnerships with industry. This has resulted in enhanced training, reliable services and purposeful partnerships and networks.

Sonja Coertze, manager of the PDC, provided a brief historical overview of the PDC. The PDC was the brainchild of Prof. Gustav Holz, head of the SU Department of Plant Pathology. The PDC had a small beginning in October 2000, receiving 36 diagnostic plant samples that were analysed by two staff members (Coertze and Lizeth Swart) who worked part-time in the clinic.

By 2006, diagnostic sample numbers had increased to 400 and Wilma van der Westhuizen was appointed, with departmental funding, to work full-time as a PDC diagnostician. Two years later, when sample numbers grew to almost 500, it was evident that the PDC had to become more financially independent as departmental funding was becoming increasingly limited.

This led to the establishment of a five-year PDC business plan that included financial sponsorships from a few agrochemical- and seed companies. This funding allows for the appointment of a new diagnostician - Tammy Jensens - and technical assistant - Brenda de Wee. The business plan was overseen by an advisory committee consisting of Bekker Wessels (ProCrop), Hugh Campbell (Hortgro), Michael Southwood (Hygrotech) and Ockie Oliver (Croplife).

Building on this success, sample numbers increased to an annual 1 000 by 2016, and the revenue generated allowed for the appointment of another full-time diagnostician (Ilze Beukes, followed by Lonette Smit).

The PDC staff currently consists of three staff members - De Wee, Doré De Villiers and Elaine Basson - who work full-time in the clinic, with their salaries being paid in full through the revenue generated from the approximately 1 200 diagnostic samples analysed annually. Coertze is currently, and has been, the manager of the PDC since 2000, which is a part-time responsibility in addition to her technical support position at the Department of Plant Pathology.

The PDC, prior to 2023 operated from a modest space first within the JS Marais Building and subsequently in the Lombardi building, before moving to the new new Paul van der Bijl building in September 2023. During her presentation, Coertze emphasised the historical significance of the Paul van der Bijl building to the Department of Plant Pathology and the PDC. The building is named after Paul Andries van der Bijl, the first Professor in Plant Pathology and Mycology in South Africa, at SU. He was also the first head of the department in 1921. The upgrading of the PDC laboratory at the Paul van der Bijl building to a state-of-the-art diagnostic facility was enabled through an SU Strategic funding grant obtained by the Faculty of AgriSciences, spearheaded by Brink.

Prof Adele McLeod, from the SU Department of Plant Pathology, joined the PDC team in 2022 as a part-time member when the PDC enrolled as an incubation company at Innovus. At the opening event, she presented the PDC advisory committee, established in 2022, with a token of appreciation, recognising their important role in guiding and supporting the PDC's journey towards financial self-sustainability and commercialisation.

The PDC advisory committee consists of Wessels (ProCrop), Campbell (Hortgro), Anel Andrag (Wine South Africa), Albert Strever (SU Viticulture and Oenology Department), Dereck du Toit (private consultant), Rudolph Geldenhuys (private consultant and previous CEO of InteliChem), Kobus Serfontein (ICA), MJ Freeborough (AgriSciences Faculty Manager) and Dr Cheryl Lennox (SU Department of Plant Pathology). McLeod also presented thank-you gifts to representatives of the agricultural industries that have provided the financial means to purchase equipment for the new laboratory at Paul van der Bijl.

Representatives of the PDC’s gold sponsors included Cambell (Hortgro) and Marius Boshoff (Villa), the silver sponsors were Anel Andrag (South African Wine), Dawie Moelich (SATI), Retief Du Toit (Korkom) and Elzette Schutte (Berries ZA), and to the bronze sponsors were Suzel Serfontein (ICA) and Wilma van der Westhuizen (Nexus).

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