The Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria (UP) turns 20 in 2018. Vice-chancellor and principal, Prof Cheryl de la Rey, welcomed the audience of FABI staff, students, alumni and a host of international researchers and academics who accepted the invitation to celebrate FABI’s milestone. Former UP vice-chancellor and principal, Dr Johan van Zyl, explained his role and vision in ensuring that FABI found a home at UP.

Prof Mike Wingfield, founder and former director of FABI, spoke on the challenges and achievements of FABI over the course of its history and how it had contributed to research excellence, diversity and its sustainability.

Unique research institute

FABI is a unique research institute that is a collaborative space, which began with a broad mandate to be a stand-alone post-graduate structure focussing on forestry and agricultural biotechnology.

FABI’s research output touches on facets that affect many aspects of daily life, for example, paper, food security, tree health and tree life (which consequently has a direct impact on the air we breathe and the environment). Many industries relating to these topics employ thousands of people around South Africa and the world.

FABI’s initial research programme focussed specifically on tree health, and the forestry industry was a major stakeholder in establishing the institute. Interdisciplinary research has been at the core of FABI’s success.

The research conducted by FABI has been crucial in finding integrated solutions to pest and disease management to ensure tree health. The Sirex woodwasp problem affecting pine trees in South Africa is one such example of the institute’s research, rescuing an industry and the jobs forestry supports.

FABI is home to one of the first six DST-NRF Centres of Excellence for Tree Health Biotechnology. In 2017, FABI’s long-term research and achievements saw UP awarded a spot in the top two universities in the world for the study of fungi (mycology). “FABI has achieved a very obvious national and international footprint, as well as recognition for research and educational excellence,” says Prof Mike Wingfield.

Two-day commemoration

The two-day commemoration of FABI’s anniversary saw 39 speakers from around the world gather to celebrate the institute’s work and science. Research papers were also presented by students and researchers in the field.

A tree planting ceremony was held as a symbolic gesture of FABI’s contribution to research and the environment. In addition, an exhibition of some 80 works of tree and wood artworks was assembled for the occasion. This was an initiative led by Prof Wilhelm de Beer in partnership with the University of Pretoria’s Department of Arts.

The works are from the university’s permanent collection that depict trees, are made of wood or where wood has been used in the creation of the pieces. Works by FABIans, Dr Alistair McTaggart, Dr Trudy Paap and Nam Pham are also included. – University of Pretoria