Bioeconomy Grand Challenges: Department of Science and Technology (DST) Briefing

Science and Technology

22 February 2012
Chairperson: Dr N Ngcobo (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology briefed Members on the status of the Bioeconomy Grand Challenge with particular reference to the Farmer to Pharma Grand Challenge; what the Bioeconomy Strategy entailed; outputs of the Biotech Innovation Centres; and interventions in health, agriculture and clean technologies. By 2030 the global population was expected to increase by 28%. 97% of the growth in population would occur in developing countries. On the case for the Bioeconomy, it was important to adapt to changing local and global landscape so as to decrease the burden of diseases and maintain sustainability. A Draft Strategy was still to be approved by the Department of Science and Technology Executive and Minister and the Department was seeking a Cabinet endorsement of the Bioeconomy Strategy by September of this year.

Members wanted to find out about the agreement between Ketlaphela and Lonza; what was being done to protect indigenous practitioners and their products; since when indigenous edible plants became toxic; what kind of relations the Department was having with Germany in regard to research programmes; what attempts the Department had made to bring the private sector on board; and what was being done to make people aware about the role of science and technology in their lives.

Meeting report

Dr Mapitso Molefe, Chief Director: Biotechnology and Health, DST] explained that the Farmer to Pharma Grand Challenge was aimed at strengthening the bioeconomy. It sought to explore the biodiversity of the country using both the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) and biotechnology for socio-economic benefit. It supported agricultural biotech and food security. She also cautioned that the focus on the concept was limited though its outcomes covered the whole spectrum of the bioeconomy - agriculture, health and industry. Focus on the concept was limited in the sense that it tended to be interpreted differently by many.

Its 2018 expected outcomes were to put South Africa in the globally competitive pharmaceutical industry; to fund centres of competence in the top five national health priorities; to increase foreign direct investment in health-related Research and Development; to strengthen functional technology platform for agricultural biotechnology; and to strengthen animal vaccine Research and Development as well as production.

On the issue of biotechnology strategy, she stated its objective was to grow the bioeconomy and create social value; to harness biotech innovations at the downstream end; to promote investment in the entire innovation value chain; and to promote regional agenda through the former Biotech Innovation Centres. Outputs of the Biotech Innovation Centres during the period of 2002 to 2009 included an investment to the tune of R900 million. 124 investments were concluded. These included investments in over 31 companies. Investments were in 15 technology platforms. More than 70 projects were funded. More than 900 new jobs were created. More than 400 bursaries were provided. An additional R250 million to R500 million was leveraged from external sources. A lot of investment went into early and late stages of development. Less went into mid-stages.

On the global front, she explained that by 2030 the global population was expected to increase by 28%, from 6.5 billion to 8.3 billion. 97% of the growth in population would occur in developing countries. A growing population would mean an increase in demand for health services that improve the quality of life, essential natural resources, food, animal feed and clean water and energy.

There was also a growing strategic interest in the concept of the bioeconomy in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation (OECD) and non-OECD countries. This was due to its potential for significant global economic, social and environmental benefits in an integrated framework. From less than 1% today, bioeconomy could contribute up to 2.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in OECD countries by 2030, and considerably more in non-OECD countries.

With regard to the bioeconomy case, she said a coordinated approach to enhance synergies eliminate duplications in Farmer to Pharma; National Biotechnology Strategy; Health Innovation Initiatives; and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Policy. Adapting to changing local and global landscape was seen to be important and this would mean new institutional arrangements, new policy instruments, and alignment to priorities. This would also minimise the burden of diseases and maintain environmental sustainability because already there was 12% of unused dry arable land, limited water resources, and biodiversity threats due to climate change. All these would affect food security.

Dr Molefe identified three interventions.

Health Interventions
The projected outcome was to increase life expectancy; combat HIV and AIDS and decrease the burden of tuberculosis (TB); and decrease maternal and child mortality rates. With regard to African Traditional Medicine, leads were identified to treat diabetes and TB, and to conduct preclinical trials on HIV, TB and diabetes treatments. Plans were afoot to manufacture insulin locally; to develop human vaccine support at the Biovac Institute; and focus on fluoro-expansion initiative for antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Bioscience parks in Western Cape and Gauteng and Research and Innovation Initiatives would be supported.

Agriculture Interventions
The expected outcomes were the sustainable agrarian reform; improved access to affordable and diverse food; rural development and sustainable livelihoods; and rural job creation linked to skills-training and promotion of economic livelihoods.
On the issue of the nutraceutical flagship, the focus would be on indigenous vegetables, that was, amaranthus, cleome and cowpea; formulation of multi-vitamins and minerals; and focusing on niche markets like rooibos, monatin, and fortified sorghum. The roll out of Nguni cattle embryo transfer had been started already. There would be development of biological control technologies and animal diagnostic systems. Support would be given to Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) infrastructure to support animal vaccine research. The DST would also look at biomass crops to support the biofuels industry in greenfields.

Clean Technologies Intervention
Outcomes expected were to enhance quality and quantity of water resources; reduce GHG emissions, climate change impact and improve air quality; and protect biodiversity. Products made from Moringa tree had been developed in three communities from three different provinces. Biomanufacturing capabilities at Biotech Innovation Centres (BIC)-established platforms and science councils would be developed. The Department also planned to develop metagenomics platforms.

For the RDI Strategy to be successful in strengthening the bioeconomy, the focus would be on three markets: agriculture, industrial, and health.

Agriculture would focus on:

Crop Improvement (Nutrition & Adaptation)
Indigenous Gene Pool
Biofuels Crops
Animal Production
Disease Management (Vaccines & diagnostics)

Industrial market would look at the following:

Enzyme Manufacturing
Bioprocessing (Chemicals, biofuels and bioplastics)
Waste management

Health would pay attention to the following:

Active Pharma Ingredients
Medical Devices

Dr Molefe concluded that a Draft Strategy was still to be approved by the DST Executive and Minister. Detailed Implementation Plans for new initiatives had been taken. They were also working on improving effectiveness and efficiency of existing initiatives. Lastly, they were seeking Cabinet endorsement of the Bioeconomy Strategy by September of 2012.

Ms J Kloppers-Lourens (DA) wanted to know if there was any new information that came out of the agreement between Ketlaphela and Lonza. She also asked the Department to explain the acronyms it was using.

Dr Val Moonsamy, Deputy Director-General (DDG): Research, Development and Innovation, DST, explained that his Department had developed a plan for the project and resources needed. A task team had been appointed and the Cabinet approved the terms of reference. The Board of Lonza had signed a commitment, but not the document.

Dr Molefe assured Ms Kloppers-Lourens that a list of acronyms would be compiled and sent to the Committee.

Ms M Dunjwa (ANC) asked what attempts the Department had made to bring the private sector on board. She further enquired about mechanisms in place to make people in rural and urban areas aware about the role of science and technology in their lives.

Dr Molefe explained that attracting the private sector remained a challenge because in South Africa there were companies in the health sector that did not do their Research and Development locally. At this stage, those companies were being encouraged to develop their own things for the country. They would be drawn in when the DST had developed its own technologies using local capacity and strength.

Dr Moonsamy further added that the biotech firms that had moved from the public to the private sector were the ones that were targeted to be drawn in.

On the issue of public education or awareness, Dr Molefe stated the Department had established an initiative to assist the public to understand what biotech was. The initiative had focused on learners and was assisting journalists on reporting biotechnology. The focus had not been so much on adult population. She indicated that biotechnology had been practiced for a long time in African communities, for example, in the making of umqombothi, amarhewu, etc. She emphasised that using a simple language to transmit these messages and identifying people who used biotechnology had been a challenge.

Ms S Plaatjie (COPE) wanted to find out about the number of bursaries awarded to students and the number of jobs created in rural areas. Secondly, she asked what was causing population growth.

Dr Molefe responded by saying the bursaries were afforded to students in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Western Cape. About population growth, she said in Sub Saharan Africa people lived longer. Life expectancy was on the increase. The number of people giving birth in South Africa was less due to various reasons.

Ms P Mocumi (ANC) enquired about the names of communities and provinces that produced products made from the Maringa tree and the type of products that were developed. She further asked what the involvement of communities was where Amarula trees grew and what the DST was doing to protect indigenous practitioners to retain indigenous products.

Dr Molefe said she would ask her IKS colleagues who were knowledgeable about Maringa trees to provide the Committee with full details. About Amarula, she stated there was a trust that had been established which was under the DST, the Medical Research Council, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and various IKS stakeholders. Professor Nceba Gqaleni who had done research on the matter sat in the consortium that oversaw this project. She further noted there were also beneficiation agreements signed with IK practitioners and communities.

The Chairperson asked about the derivation of the term “Farmer to Pharma”. He wanted to know how the biosafety platform was going to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He commented that the bioeconomy terminology emerged from OECD. So he asked why DST was always following what OECD was prescribing – why was it not looking beyond OECD.

Dr Molefe explained that the movement from Farmer to Pharma to bioeconomy was a standard terminology. There was confusion on things you can plant that influence the pharmaceuticals. About biosafety platform, she said the platform was not regulating per se but was supporting the South African GMO Executive Council on regulation.

Dr Moonsamy explained that some of the Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres (BRICs) had  refused to be absorbed into the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). Eventually, some of them were absorbed into the TIA. Some of the BRICs projects that did not provide returns on investments were closed and converted to something else like Nguni embryo transfer offices.

On the issue of bioeconomy terminology, Dr Molefe explained it was an issue that had become a buzzword. The challenge was to come up with a term that people would grasp when they talked about it.

The Chairperson further asked DST to explain the relationship about the programmes it was conducting with Germany. He indicated that these foreign countries developed their own things without involving the local partners yet they had the audacity to come test their products in South Africa. Lastly, he wanted the views of the DST on Nguni embryo transfer technology.

Dr Molefe stated that the DST had identified countries with which it wanted to work on developmental phases, but not to be a guinea-pig for testing.

Dr Moonsamy added that South Africa was not alone on this matter. It was a generic issue where countries would develop a drug and come to test it in South Africa.

The Chairperson objected saying these foreign countries used locals as guinea-pigs with a good infrastructure.

About the DST views on Nguni embryo transfer, Dr Molefe said there was no genetic modification. Everything was done through the Agricultural Research Council.

Ms Mocumi wanted to find out since when had the indigenous edible plants become so toxic because she grew up using these plants, even today.

To support this question, the Chairperson made an anecdote that an Australian researcher spent some time in a specific area and discovered that people survived on these indigenous edible plants and their average lifespan was 100 years.

Dr Molefe stated it could be that researchers were trying to marry the Western and African approach. She emphasised that these things were tested on mice, not on humans. So, if the mice responded negatively, it was assumed it would be also toxic to humans. With indigenous knowledge (IK) there was no validation. Validation came from Western methodology or modern physics.

The meeting was adjourned.


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