Bio-economy Strategy update: Department of Science and Technology briefing

Science and Technology

27 May 2015
Chairperson: Dr B Goqwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) briefed the Portfolio Committee on its Bio–economy strategy, saying that this had been in place for some time and was built around coordinated efforts that recognised three key economic areas likely to benefit, namely, agriculture, health and industry and environment.  In 2014 the top seven biotechnology companies contributed a R1 billion turnover. The presentation highlighted the successes and challenges in bio–innovation and listed the most important current bio–economy activities of the Department, which included commercialisation of indigenous knowledge systems, work on the genetic model for eucalyptus, in conjunction with other countries, and reducing pest disease to citrus by producing sterile moths, as well as wheat and poultry programmes. There were still controversial discussions around areas such as genetic engineering, stem cells and cloning. Outputs were measured by outcomes in technology, households achieving food security, medicines developed, scientific publications, patents and products. The Department emphasized that present funding for the implementation of all its projects was below need, and for this reason it had been unable to assist with funding and commercialisation of every product. In the health area, there was focus on new and improved therapeutics and drug delivery, vaccines and diagnostics. The Industry and Environment plans focused on biochemical and biologics, biomaterials, bioenergy, biomining and waste water. Indigenous Knowledge Based Technology aimed to mainstream IKS products, using consortium models, and its projects currently ranged through medicines, cosmetics, neutraceuticals and health beverages. 26 Masters and PhD students were working on these projects. 80 community members were being trained as farmers.

Implementation plans for agriculture, health, industry and the environment were at advanced stages. Coordinating committees would be established. The Department was aiming to establish plants for manufacturing own drugs and bio-refineries, to create jobs. The Department stressed that in this area, coordination of numerous committees, government departments and research agencies was needed, with involvement also of the private sector and funding bodies to achieve the goals.

Members asked about the balance between genetically modified and organically-produced food in South Africa, and some expressed the view that natural equilibrium was being upset by such quantities of GM foods. Others asked how the large cartels might be hampering wheat and grain production. The DST explained that each country was left to decide its own levels, but that South Africa had quite strong legislation and enforcement and there were benefits to adding vitamins and minerals to basic foods. Members asked about social responsibility programmes and bursaries, and enquired as to the level of buy-in and coordinating committee activities. They agreed that science needed to be  demystified and people educated. They asked about the role of the Department of Environmental Affairs, and commented that packaging and information would be important. The Department offered to give a separate presentation on genetic engineering. The Chairperson suggested that the products be highlighted on African Day. 

Meeting report

Bio-Economy Strategy: Department of Science and Technology update briefing
Mr Mmboneni Muofhe, Deputy Director-General: Technology Innovation, Department of Science and Technology, noted that the Bio–Economy Strategy of the Department of Science and Technology (the Department or DST) had identified three important economic sectors likely to benefit from key drivers on implementation: namely, Agriculture, Health and Industry and Environment.

Mr Ben Durham, Chief Director: Bio-Innovation, DST, stated that the Department had had a national strategy since 2001 and the new strategy was very closely linked to the National Development Plan (NDP). He defined the Bio–economy as those activities that make use of bio–innovations, based on biological sources, materials and processes to generate sustainable economic social and environmental development. The new strategy was based on a coordinated, specific and focused value chain.

The bio–economy focused on the coordination of numerous committees, government departments, research and development agencies, the private sector, public programmes, and funding bodies to achieve its goals. The government had identified certain strategic programmes to provide emphasis in key priority areas. The involvement of human capital and the development of skills and capabilities were essential to South Africa.

Bio–innovation created a turnover of R1 billion for the top seven companies in SA in which the Department invested. The SA bio-economy needed to target itself for 5- 6% of GDP by 2030, which would form approximately R190 billion for the economy.

Bio–innovation was one of the most highly regulated scientific fields and most of this was in agriculture, health, manufacturing, energy, and environment. It was rapidly developing and some controversial areas included genetic engineering, stem cells and cloning. The bio-economy was measured by outcomes in technology, households with food security, medicines developed and revenues generated. Outputs achieved were measured in publications, technologies, patents and products.

The bio–economy has numerous cross cutting activities initiatives and on-going activities in the Department. There are also various platforms for external use.     

Dr Dhesigen Naidu, Director Bio Technology, DST discussed the agricultural implementation plan which consisted of food safety and food nutrition, Agro processing and Agro Engineering, Natural Resource Management and Indigenous African Knowledge based Agriculture. A host of key bio-economy activities in agriculture were highlighted and the most important being the Eucalyptus Genome Programme, the wheat pre breeding platform, and a study on Agro- innovation hubs. South Africa was presently importing at least 49 % of its wheat and its poultry imports had increased by 234% in the last 10 years. These products were essential for the nutritional health of South Africans and the effective Bio–technology projects would help reduce these imports. The Department was looking for more money to implement these projects. 

Ms Glaudina Loots, Director: Health Innovation, DST, then explained the Health Implementation Plan. This focused on new and improved therapeutics and drug delivery, new vaccines and diagnostics as well as medical devices. The Medical Research Council was assisting the DST in implementing these projects through the whole product development cycle, starting with the discovery, going through development and finally dissemination.

Dr Naidu noted that private industry did want to partner with government to make sure they contributed to the success of the economy. The Industry & Environment Implementation plan focused on four key priority areas. These were the Industries of Bio-chemical & Biologics, Bio-materials, Bio-energy, Bio-mining and waste water, and the focus was on creating new and more efficient products in these categories. The DST currently supported seven projects in the industry and environment.

Mr Hlulpheka Chabalala, Director: Health Based Technology Innovation, DST, discussed the Indigenous Knowledge Based Technology whose objective was to mainstream IK based products. The model used was an Ubuntu Model, which was , consortium based, and brought in all the Indigenous Knowledge holders . This model was based on four pillars: Cultural, Economic, Technical and Institutional. The Indigenous Knowledge – based technology had started various projects ranging from African Medicines, cosmetics, nutraceuticals, and health beverages, and produced value added products that were being prepared for sale on the commercial market. These products included skin, hair, and ageing products, moringa, honey bush and nutri veg drinks. The Department had 26 PhD and Masters Students working on these projects and they were training 80 community members as farmers in good agricultural practices. 

Mr Durham concluded the briefing by stating the way forward and their successes. The implementation plans for Agriculture, Health and Industry and Environment were in the finalization stages prior to their submission to National Treasury. This would be followed by the creation of coordinating committees. The present funds for the implementation of the all their projects was sub-optimal and the Department was unable to assist in the funding and commercialisation of all the projects.

The bio-economy had had some noted successes. In 2014 the top seven companies had a combined annual turnover of nearly R 1 billion. Several highlights were the successful Eucalyptus Genome project, and Xsit, which had produced a sterile moth which had dramatically reduced the pests threatening the citrus industry. Umbiflow which was a device designed to assist in reducing the costs of assessing maternal and child status and M Triage is a software device which allows for better emergency care.

Several new developments include 10-Ik based cosmetic products for commercialisation and five new patents filed for Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) technologies. He added that the Department wanted to add further value to biodiversity through its own manufacturing of drugs, because when a body licenced others, it was essentially giving away the chance to boost own jobs to other manufacturers. The Department also wished to put up bio-refineries, which would benefit people in the township.


The Chairperson thanked all the delegates for the presentation and noted that the DST was dynamic and transformed. However, it did still need to work on those areas which would ensure people had dignity.

Mr C Mothale (ANC) noted that people were eating genetically modified food in South Africa, like maize meal and wheat, and that survival relied on science and technology to develop the capacity to go forward. He wanted to know, if all food development was going to be non-organic, how then a balance was going to be struck between genetically modified and organic foodstuffs. He stated that the majority of people in rural areas lived without science and they needed to be included.

The Chairperson believed that mankind was upsetting the natural equilibrium by creating too much genetically modified food, and he felt we should be maintaining a balance.

Ms A Tuck (ANC) stated that there was no mention of social responsibility in the presentation, nor of bursaries and funding for those students being trained.

Dr A Lotriet (DA) wanted to know who was taking the lead in setting up these coordinating committees and what the level of buy-in was.

The Chairperson believed that people in general were afraid of science and asked if DST had been given the leading role to help all other departments.

Ms M Scheepers (ANC) agreed that science should be demystified and opened up to ordinary people. She wanted to know what was happening on the eucalyptus tree project. Ms Scheepers asked whether the economic growth of wheat and grain was being hampered by the cartels that prevented new innovations. She asked if the Department of Environmental Affairs was assisting the DST in the budget and she wanted to know where one could find the ageing products. She felt that packaging was an extremely important factor in the success of the moringa drink being produced.

The Chairperson noted that the people from IKS were only interested in money, and he asked the DST how it would deal with this minefield. He asked the Department also how the portfolio committee could assist it in implementing the strategy.

Mr Muofhe noted that the debate on genetically modified (GM) foods was huge, but emphasised that South Africa had the necessary legislation, testing and trials that would ensure food safety. The leading GM manufacturers in the United States and EU were allowing states enough leeway to decide, individually, on their use of GM products. It was important that all communities must be informed and aware about what foods they were eating. He stressed the importance of climate change and said that DST was following a breeding programme for specific traits in plants.

Mr Muofhe responded to the issue of social responsibility, stating that the provision of student learner ships was central to every project that the DST undertook. He also noted that he fully agreed that departments needed to work closely together and be guided by national priorities. The DST and the Department of Health were cooperating and working together on coordinating financial solutions. The DST was the lead Department in all coordination work, and it worked with the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Health.

Mr Muofhe said that the DST had a programme of science councils for consumers, in order to broaden public knowledge about science. On the issue of packaging he stated that the Department would be introducing more defined packaging, especially for the mainstream indigenous knowledge based products which needed to be properly packaged and labelled.

He noted that people must be encouraged to consume traditional foods such as maize meal which also contained added vitamins and minerals. The present government legislation enabled proper competition in the market and protected infant industries from domination by the large cartels and monopolies. In countries like China, Japan and Taiwan, traditional foods and drink were easily brought into the mainstream market for consumption. Local projects would empower the communities, who would then be able sell their traditional products like the Moringa drink.

Mr Durham said that he would be happy to arrange for a separate presentation for the Committee, if it wished, on genetic engineering and the benefits and disadvantages of organic versus GM food. He said that bio-safety issues had been communicated to the public. He pointed out that around 80% of produced food was in some way genetically engineered, and as such would have gone through stringent screening and testing in the manufacturing process. The Bio–technology programme had already been running for ten years and public perception of the programme and the understanding of food safety would be published.

He stated that scientists would be encouraged to undergo proper training in media relations, because this area had been neglected. The DST would be arranging a media round-table, with expert speakers discussing relevant topics in the mainstream media, which promoted all aspects of Bio–technology.

South Africa and Brazil were busy cooperating on the Eucalyptus Genome Programme and South Africa had taken the lead to source the entire genome programme of the eucalyptus tree.

Mr Durham noted that the sugar and forestry industries were not really well funded by national government and that the DST provided a high level of support for research for the local sugar industry. 

Ms Loots then answered questions in her field of expertise. She emphasized that through the use of leverage the DST had invested an amount of R190 million in health research and this model worked well.

Dr Naidu stated that moringa was organically grown and that there was no need to make it a genetically modified product. The introduction of Agro-Innovation Hubs would stimulate youth to become involved in farming and develop an interest as well as creating new employment opportunities. The DST and Grain SA had initiated a project on wheat pre–breeding platform in which the Agricultural Research Council and Senleco were partners. This project aimed to produce their GM crop.

Mr Chabalala explained that the Ubuntu integral model was followed by the Department to get the local chiefs and people to work together on the cultivation and production of Indigenous Knowledge–based products. This process included an overarching agreement which had codes of conduct, which enabled the projects to function properly. He emphasised that all the packaging for the Indigenous Knowledge based products was designed with the help of SA Bureau of Standards and Proudly SA, to ensure that the nutritional and cosmetic products were produced to the highest qualities and standards. Two companies, Nestle and L'Oreal, came up with a design lock model and they were encouraged to enter into a joint venture with the community to test these products. The IKS products were all organically based natural products.

On the issue of social responsibility he noted that money was put aside for training students and for skills development in the communities. Communities would be able to put their products into commercial production, but they had only recently been formulated, and were awaiting the commercial launch into the market place.

Mr Muofhe concluded that the strategy had been around a long time and must be implemented. He stated the DST was already busy implementing it.

The Chairperson responded that the Portfolio Committee accepted the strategy, and would support DST continuing with its implementation. Members of the Committee were asked to work on continuation of public-private partnerships and participation in the various projects. He suggested that the indigenous knowledge- based products should be highlighted over the period of Africa Day celebrations.      

The meeting was adjourned.


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