As South Africa’s sugar industry looks to its grower section to manager the functions of the South African Sugar Research Institute, Dr Kathy Hurly who is the Corporate Executive at SA Canegrowers, poses the argument for research and development in a time of crisis to ensure the sustainability and growth of the sector through innovation and new technology investment.

The article draws on material from a number of conferences that cut across the sugarcane, food and agricultural sectors where experts agree that unlocking new ideas in both the field and the factory, were absolutely necessary for a thriving industry.

“No change in our behaviour will kill the sugarcane industry”

Dr Frikkie Botha – Sugar Research Australia

At the opening of the 2019 International Farm Management Association conference in Tasmania, Professor Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre of International Agriculture Research said:

Dr Kathy Hurly

“For commodity yields to increase, invest in research and development (R&D); for commodity costs to decline invest in new technology, and to secure better commodity prices, identify new high value products and components.”

Also, Mick Keogh of the CEO Australian Competition and Consumer Council predicted that the declining prices of commodity markets would continue with the dairy and sugar industries being the most impacted in the agriculture sector.

At SA Canegrowers we are asking ourselves how we can realise the best value out of research and development in a climate where prices have declined?

And without a doubt, we believe success is pivotal on the adoption of new technology by our growers.

Beet sector leads the way

To answer Campbell’s first proposal on investing in R&D for increased yields, Dr Mambully Gopinathan showed at the 2013 International Society for Sugar Technologists’ Association  (ISSCT) meeting in Brazil, that growth in sugar production over the past five decades had come largely from area expansion and to a limited extent from yield increase.

Sugarcane he said, had shown one of the lowest yield growth rates among the world’s major crops in stark contrast to the success in the sugar beet industry.

At the 2016 ISSCT conference, Dr Frikkie Botha  from Sugar Research Australia said the beet industry’s success was due to a singular focus on research and development and once studies were agreed upon, they were appropriately resourced to make sure the outcome promoted the industry’s common and strategic goals.

The beet industry has set itself a 25 tons sugar-a-hectare as their yields benchmark. Every aspect of their research is aimed at achieving this business objective.

“No distractions from stakeholders with pet projects is permitted,” Botha said.

However, beet produces a seed and sugarcane has a complex genome, which raises the question as to whether such focus is achievable in the sugarcane sector.

“Bright young things”

Botha said Thailand was the only sugarcane industry reflecting consistent growth while the rest of the sugarcane world had displayed no growth.

Effective R&D programmes, he added, were at the very core of the sugar industry’s sustainability and the fact that sugarcane research had little to demonstrate compared to the beet industry, was because all the key sugar industry players did not have the same approach as the R&D management in the beet industry. 

“No change in our behaviour will kill the sugarcane industry” Botha said while proposing that ways to empower innovators must be found with support from management.

“People are critically important in reaching this goal and their environment should stimulate and provide them with personal growth. Bright young things should be at the centre of the R&D business,” he said.

At the 2010 ISSCT conference, the management workshop however identified a ‘disconnect’ between sugar industry principals and those in attendance proposed these ‘disconnects’ could be mitigated by:

(1) researching economic value-adding industry ‘needs’;

(2) eliminating research on uneconomic industry ‘wants’; and

(3) quantifying the economic return of R&D outcomes in other words seeing R&D as an investment and not a cost.

This, the meeting said, could be achieved by employing “economic/commercial” skills at research centres better able to communicate in the “language” of industry and increasing the participation of stakeholders at strategic stages in the iterative R&D planning process.

A growing international trend is to replace historical productivity R&D objectives with a “vision of sustainability” from a collective economic, environmental and social perspective.

These are important considerations for the South African sugar industry as it looks towards the grower section to manage the R&D function of the SA Sugarcane Research Institute going forward.

Results drive funding

Understandably, funders become reluctant to invest in R&D when benefits are not realised and/ or they are difficult to quantify.

Generally, the value of the international agricultural R&D spend is too low and South Africa is no different. Traditionally all commodities, except sugar, have relied on government to invest in research.

A survey undertaken by AgriSA ahead of the commodity conference this year showed, however, that this has changed over the past decade with spend supporting multidisciplinary teams addressing cross commodity research issues in both private and university institutions.

In many sugar growing countries great benefit has been achieved through a similar model.

For example, Sugar Research Australia used the Australian Centre for Research and Development system to utilise the best expertise to solve their problems through a consortia created to address cross cutting industry problems more effectively, and, at a reduced cost.

The same can be said in South Africa where unlikely collaborators such as GrainSA and ForestrySA have identified common research issues that could be funded collaboratively.

At the AgriSA commodity conference this year, greater collaboration and sharing of resources was identified as being able to assist the smaller and struggling commodities to set up research projects to address competitiveness and food security.

In the grain industry, applied research is being done where new technology is tested and improved on by farmer groupings within their farming systems.

The grain industry has noticed the research findings and their application are transferred more successfully from farmer to farmer.

This model was corroborated by Eva Schröer-Merker Massey from the University of New Zealand and now by Harper Adams from the University UK  (IFMA 2019) who found the best way to facilitate the flow of information is through farmers’ professional and social networks.

Similarly, Alison Bailey from the Massey University (IFMA 2019), has shown that farmers trust information sourced from their peers the most while the least trusted is information from academics.

This approach is not risk free but it would speed up the testing of “new technology to reduce costs” and it could assist the sugar industry to improve early variety uptake which is slow according to William Burnquist, Kerry Redshaw and Ross Gilmour at the ISSCT 2010 conference hosted in Mexico.

As a result the researchers say, the true value of research and development is unrealised.

Attaching an economic value to the technology (increasing income or reducing costs) has also promoted adoption as demonstrated by Nick Pyke – the former head of the Foundation for Arable Research – at the 2011 IFMA conference where he said technology uptake was driven by “removing a pain” for farmers.

For example, innovations that provided a simple immediate response had the highest adoption rate at  80% of the farmers within two years, as compared to a wheat calculator that took six years to gain the same 80% in adoption.

Extensionists need to package scientific outcomes to achieve maximum adoption but scientists also need to make sure they focus on technology solutions that either alleviate a pain or provide a gain for the grower.

Meeting Campbell’s proposals

Many sugar growing countries focus on either grower or miller research which limits exploring the integrated value chain potential and impacts the area of “ new high value products and components” and the potential of sugarcane as a multiple feed stock for production of sugar, energy, bio-fuels and bio-polymers.

Speeding up innovation of new products or improving current products requires a value chain multi-disciplinary approach to ensure full participation of the value chain.

Value of SASTA and ISSCT

Both the annual South African Society for Technologists’ Association congress and the ISSCT conference – which is held every three years – provide ideal platforms for latest findings on science, engineering and technology research within the milling and growing sector but also research that impacts the value chain. 

Conferences allow for knowledge exchange, networking and peer review.

The ISSCT has also developed international sugarcane round tables that create opportunities for traditional competitors and adversarial stakeholders to work towards a common objective. The International Consortium of Sugarcane Biotechnology and the International Sugarcane Biomass Utilization Consortium of the ISSCT primarily meet these objectives.

SASTA has also looked at new ways to address value chain and industry issues through workshops and invited paper submissions.

These gatherings also provide a great opportunity to build collaboration and gather ideas from delegates on new research areas that need consideration.

Attendance at SASTA and ISSCT allows delegates to gain insight into current research and innovation outcomes in the sugar industry value chain and application of these insights lead to unlocking new ideas on farm and in the factory.

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