ATC100324: Report Visit to the PlantBio National Innovation Centre for Plant Biotechnology & (PBMR) Pietermaritzburg & Pretoria Visit
Report of the Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology: Visit to the PlantBio National Innovation Centre for Plant Biotechnology and the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) in Pietermaritzburg and Pretoria respectively, 1-3 February 2010, dated 24 March 2010.
The Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology visited PlantBio and PBMR from 1-3 February 2010. The main purpose of the visit was to strengthen the Committee’s understanding of entities and programmes falling under or operating in collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology. Other objectives included:
§ An initial brief on the status of PBMR in order to position the Committee to meaningfully contribute to the debate on the way forward for PBMR;
§ Evaluating the extent to which financial aspects assist or inhibit the fulfilment of the mandate and obligations of entities and institutions;
§ Determining key areas to focus on during the development of the Committee’s long-term programme or approach relating to the sectors visited.
Dr ENN Ngcobo (ANC)
Ms L Jacobus (ANC)
Ms A Nyama (ANC)
Ms S Molau (COPE)
Ms M Shinn (DA)
Mr P Smith (IFP)
Ms Shanaaz Isaacs (Committee Secretary)
Dr Rene Osborne-Mullins (Committee Researcher)
2. Brief summaries of presentations: PlantBio
PlantBio is the National Innovation Centre for Plant Biotechnology. Its aim is to lead South Africa towards developing a sustainable Plant Biotechnology sector that is competitive and world class in specific areas and addresses poverty alleviation. During the visit the Committee received presentations and visited Ukalinga Farm.
2.1 Introduction into PlantBio’s investments and how African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) projects fit into the portfolio: Dr Antonio Llobell-CEO PlantBio Trust
This introductory brief focused on the strategy, focus areas, funded projects and structure and possible ways of speeding up innovation in South Africa.
Its activities, amongst other, focus on achieving economic growth and creating jobs through the development of sustainable commercial entities, building capacity by assisting the development of relevant human skills and creating technology platforms that will serve plant biotechnology research and businesses.
The key areas of support are investing in plant biotechnology research, creation of start-up companies, the generation of intellectual property (IP) and the development and commercialisation of new products. Investments in projects are within the thematic areas of poverty alleviation/food security, biofuels and industrial crops, environmental friendly agriculture, etc. The funding dispersed by PlantBio is determined by their investment criteria and identified investment areas.
2.2 African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) – Prof Mark Laing, Prof Tongo Tongoona
The main activity of the ACCI is to train plant breeders at PhD level from 15 countries in Africa (including South Africa), breeding better varieties of 15 crops. Currently, this is seen as one of the biggest plant breeding programs anywhere in the world. Furthermore it addresses the critical world-wide shortage of plant breeders.
The key is that the field research takes place in the student's home countries, using local landraces to create locally adapted varieties. An example of the program’s success has been that students in both Kenya and Tanzaniareduced the time to harvest cassava from 18 months to 7 months, whilst improving yield, starch content and food quality. In addition, new cassava varieties have been bred that are resistant to two deadly viruses that cause losses of 50-100% of crops and yields in most of Africa, including South Africa.
One of the students has bred dry beans resistant to weevils, which normally eat 50-80% of the harvested beans. In one step, the effective harvest of beans for Africa, the beans available for people to eat, could be doubled.
These developments are all happening in South Africa and neighbouring countries, using a new educational model for agricultural sciences which has proved to be successful.
88% of the students have graduated after 3 or 4 years of research. All of these graduates have successfully secured on-going funding for research.
The ACCI research, presented to the committee is some of the research they involved in, though additional research undertaken by some of the staff of the ACCI, in addition to their teaching and supervisory activities, with funding from PlantBio.
2.3 Ukalinga Farm site visit
The Committee visited one of the research farms of ACCI. Members were shown some of the work done around maize breeding. In line with one of the thematic areas of poverty alleviation, development of better products and improving the quality of life through plant biotechnology, Members were presented with examples of maize which were selectively bred to increase the Vitamin A content. This “bright orange” maize was specifically bred for the purpose of providing a much more nutritious staple food, which also has a better resistance to stress factors such as pests and droughts. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in the developing world. This maize is then destined for those markets and areas where maize is considered staple food and where less meat is consumed. This process of selective plant breeding, leads to an increase in the nutritional value of maize.
2.4 PlantBio investment portfolio and successes – Dr Siya Ntutela
The presentation focused on their key thematic areas of investment. These were as follows, as well as the percentage of accumulative investment and the number of projects in each:
§ Poverty alleviation/food security, 13% of accumulated investment and 5 projects;
§ Biofuels and industrial crops, 19% of accumulated investment and 8 projects;
§ Technology platforms: creating national capacities for innovation, 22% of accumulated investment and 5 projects;
§ Exploitation of South African Bio-resources, 32% of accumulated investment and 3 projects;
§ Environmental friendly agriculture 14% of accumulated investment and 2 projects
The performance summary presented for the financial year ending March 2009 illustrated the following:
§ accumulated expenditure of R124m;
§ investment in projects R95m;
§ raised R45m external funding;
§ 24 funded projects (22 active, 15 collaborative);
§ Over 90 proposals evaluated;
§ Accumulated turnover of six late stage projects R28M
§ One startup company reached profit breakeven and two more expected in the current financial year;
§ More than 180 jobs created;
§ 11 products/technologies/services commercialized.
3. Brief summary on presentation: PBMR
Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Limited is a public-private partnership comprising the South African government, nuclear industry players and utilities. SA government invests 82%, IDC 5%, ESKOM 9% and Westinghouse 4%. Until recently, PBMR was seen as a strategic national project and had potential to become a prospective provider of safe, clean energy in international markets.
The PBMR design is aimed at process-heat applications utilising steam at temperatures of up to 750°C, which provide the basis for penetrating the nuclear heat market as a viable alternative for carbon-burning, high-emission heat sources. Heat from the PBMR can be used for a variety of industrial process applications, including process steam for cogeneration applications, in-situ oil sands recovery, ethanol applications, refinery and petrochemical applications.
PBMR reported that the reality of the global economic downturn and the immediate funding challenge of meeting South Africa’s energy needs are threats to the SA local nuclear industry, and specifically to PBMR.
Presenters highlighted that there was a lack of sustainable funding for long term infrastructure in South Africa as well a mechanism for participation in PBMR.
PBMR reported to the Committee that they were faced with three main options:
§ Closure of PBMR Co and the transfer of skills to the rest of the nuclear industry;
§ Incorporation into Eskom;
§ Continue with PBMR and looking at self funding options up to September 2010 and then to March 2011.
Presenters assured the Committee that employees at PBMR were informed in December 2009 about the retrenchment processes.
On a question about collaborative initiatives, PBMR reported that a visit was scheduled by the Algerian state owned nuclear company (COMENA) to discuss investment. A MOU for potential co-operation with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was pending.
PBMR reported that a political decision was required around potential new investments.
3.1 Site Visit to the Fuel Development Laboratory
After the presentation, the members of the Portfolio Committee were taken to the Fuel Development Laboratory where the process of manufacturing the pebbles, were demonstrated. The entire process was shown and explained, starting with graphite powder which was mixed with chemicals such as alumine and phenolic and processed through the machines until it became a shiny solid pebble ready to be put into the reactor.
4. Summary of discussions
The reason why PlantBio was registered as a Trust as opposed to a company, was explained to the Members. Primarily, PlantBio is involved with projects which require risk-taking. When PlantBio becomes part of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the risk-taking part might become a challenge as TIA would be differently classified. A new strategy would have to be devised to work around this issue.
In response to a question on PlantBio’s role in indigenous medicine development, presenters explained their involvement was limited to identifying new crops, and in doing that, bring optimisation and innovation to such a project, but it was essentially the role of other innovation initiatives to look at indigenous medicine development.
In terms of the collaborative relationship with institutions such as the CSIR, CSIR was described as demanding an unacceptably high stake or financial return for their involvement in IP, which was found to be unacceptably high.
Reference was made to the Fischer–Tropsch technology used by Sasol as a possibility to explore the viability of applying it to biomass instead of coal in ethanol production activities. PlantBio further indicated that for the production of biodiesel, investment in algae would be key.
Members were keen to understand the how the process “idea” to “commercialisation,” has evolved. Presenters said that often when research was published, it ended there. They identified some of the obstacles to commercialisation as the funding criteria and were of the view that this had to change so that the innovation, invention and commercialisation chain were given preference. In this regard, reference was made to the National Research Foundation. The same applied to the Department of Education which has to start looking at changing criteria regarding publications. Plantbio argued that a mind-shift is required, as there is the need to see value of commercialisation, not just an obligation to publish but also to innovate.
PlantBio was hopeful that under TIA, there was the potential for new partnerships, cohesion and collaboration amongst entities.
With regard to human capital development, sufficient skills development needs to take place in order to take ideas to the market place. PlantBio explained how they are aligned with DST’s human capital development strategy and how their projects and initiatives were informed by what the country required.
A number of Ministries and Departments such as Agriculture, Science and Technology, Department of Trade and Industry and Education and Health are involved in innovation, but tighter synergy is required.
Members of the Committee enquired about what would happen with the technology (intellectual property protection) if PBMR closed down and whether technology and skills would be lost to international nuclear players. PBMR reported that there has been significant investment in human capital infrastructure, systems and the development of a knowledge base. PBMR cautioned that South Africa stands to lose valuable technology, if no decision is made with regard to the way forward for PBMR and SA’s nuclear programme.
The Committee attributed the current state of PBMR to the fragmented manner in which it was moved from under one Department to another and therefore lacked co-ordinated and coherent decisions regarding the project and its future.
The Committee was further of the view that part of the current predicament could also be attributed to PBMR’s operation as a stand alone project with too little national and international collaboration.
The Committee expressed a view that excessive amounts of money were spent on consultants which might have been unnecessary in some instances.
The Committee was displeased that representatives from the Equity Committee were not present at the meeting as that would have provided the Committee with a first hand sense of how workers viewed and felt about the restructuring and retrenchments.
Members enquired about timelines and, how PBMR intended to deal with closure, and at what cost. Members were assured that consultations with the Equity Committee, Trade Unions and work place committees will take place in accordance with the Labour Relations Act. Closure cost, was estimated at R200 million.
PBMR explained that there was always the misconception about their role and explained that it was essentially a nuclear design and engineering company and not directly responsible for electricity provision.
PBMR reported their collaboration with the Westinghouse team and how they were the main contenders in the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) programme in the United States.
In response to questions raised by Members relating to the future of PBMR, one of the possibilities alluded to, was that Westinghouse was the most likely company to take over PBMR upon closure.
PBMR indicated to the Committee that they were hopeful that a March Cabinet meeting would provide clarity on future prospects for PBMR.
5. Conclusions and Recommendations
The Committee acknowledged that their knowledge around the details of existing biotechnology projects and programmes was limited. They are even more concerned about the level of public understanding and awareness around these. The Committee resolved to engage with the relevant structures under DST and NRF to explain what biotechnology awareness programmes exist and how it is promoted at the different levels in our society (educators, learners, consumers, communities).
The Committee will incorporate more visits to other biotechnology initiatives, specifically those falling under the Biotechnology Innovation Centre’s (BIC’s) in their programme.
The Committee raised their concerns regarding human capacity in biotechnology innovation. They would like to see the number of experts in specific areas increased and attention should be given to develop women scientists and those from previously disadvantaged communities.
The Committee in assisting with this process undertakes to engage with other Portfolio Committee’s in Parliament as well as the Departments of Education and Science and Technology to facilitate a resolution to this very challenging situation.
Another area which the Committee wishes to explore, although alluded to in the presentations, is the extent of collaboration with biotechnology projects with our African counterparts, recognising that most of the African countries in the southern parts face similar challenges and conditions.
The Committee questions whether enough was being done to transform the research or data produced into a commercial product, process or service.
The Committee will engage with DST and NRF to look at this challenge and with specific focus on funding criteria, so that publishing and innovating have an equal weighting.
The Committee will meet jointly with committees and departments of Education and Science and Technology around this issue.
The Committee resolved that further discussion was necessary with DST and the relevant Departments involved with PBMR to ascertain the impact of the current status of PBMR on scientific knowledge, technology and the infra structure acquired by PBMR over the years.
Report to be considered.
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