Plant scientist hopes to keep the forestry industry alive

The year is 2033 and the world has finally stopped a tree-killing fungus wreaking havoc on the global forestry industry, all thanks to African scientists. This future is possible if researchers from all over Africa come together to eradicate a pathogen threatening the continent’s forestry industry.

Ms Benedicta Swalarsk-Parry is a microbiologist with the ambitious plan to help save our trees by using a multidisciplinary approach to understand more about Fusarium circinatum, the fungus attacking pine trees in South Africa and globally. This approach transcends her professional life as she also uses this approach at home. When she hangs up her lab coat, she is also in the early stages of becoming a humble farmer.

“At home I am known as the plant doctor,” she says about how her expertise in plant pathology helps with her green thumb. While her family’s farm does not plant pines, they do plant a number other agricultural crops where pests and diseases cause havoc. Managing these pests and diseases requires a combination of plant pathology, updated agricultural practices, biotechnology, engineering, amongst other disciplines. “This is where interdisciplinarity comes into play.”

It is through such interdisciplinarity that she wants to tackle the scourge of the Fusarium fungus threatening pine trees. The information that scientists have about this pathogen is limited by knowlede gaps that Swalarsk-Parry hopes to fill through collaborations with other African researchers. 

“Understanding this pathogen may also help us to understand other closely related Fusarium species of agricultural importance,” she says. “This interdisciplinary approach will provide the opportunity to engage with grassroots communities affected by the diseases caused by these fungi, in both the agricultural and forestry context.”

“We need communities to understand our science, and we need to apply it better,” she believes. “These communities are not yet benefitting from the research we do and this is a challenge throughout the continent.” 

Swalarsk-Parry wants to share the knowledge scientists have with communities and to invite communities to enrich academics’ knowledge with their lived experiences.
“We need them to understand what scientists are trying to do and how the community can help.”

She says researchers from disciplines beyond agriculture, such as economists and engineers, are needed to solve such complex problems

“Future Africa and the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the University of Pretoria will help create the research collaborations we need, and also uncover hidden knowledge gained by the communities most affected,” she says. Swalarsk-Parry b
elieves that this way of doing research can overcome limitations such as a lack of infrastructure in some regions across Africa. 

Imagine this headline in future: “Scientists beat pine tree fungus to safeguard Africa’s Forestry industry”. What’s your #ImagineFutureAfrica headline?