The role of research in eradicating food insecurity

The beauty of being an Animal Science researcher is having to attend the South African Society of Animal Science (SASAS) Congress, which was hosted by the Stellenbosch branch of the Society from 1-6 July 2016. During the congress, I was lucky enough to be part of the exceptional group that was in charge of blogging about the SASAS Congress. If you want to visit the blogs, you can go to http://sasas.co.za/sasas-gala-dinner-2016 and http://sasas.co.za/49th-sasas-congress-kick. Working with Dr Yonela Njisane, Sipokazi Nyeleka and Mzuvukile Mcayiya was a fun and humbling experience.

SASAS Bloggers
The SASAS Congress Bloggers 2016 – Dr Yonela Njisane, Mzuvukile Mcayiya, Sipokazi Nyeleka and I

 

I only attended as a “visiting professor” – I never had time to submit an abstract. Oh, but the joys of attending a conference where you aren’t actually presenting is that you get to enjoy all the presentations without having chest pains every time you think about yours!

 

A typical congress provides a platform where respective researchers can show off their research and findings. Having industry (farmers, feed, premix and additive manufacturers etc) and scientists in the same venue is always great because it is bound to raise much-appreciated questions and debates. These questions and debates in particular helped me to think about the context of research in the world that we live in. Mostly looking at the socio-economic ills facing our beloved Rainbow Nation.  The gist of the debate was the role that research could potentially play in solving the problems faced by the Agricultural Industry. When trying to contextualize the role of scientific research in our community, a few questions need to be posed by yours truly.

Dr Nkukwana (Supervisor), Sipokazi Nyeleka and I (the "visiting professor")
Dr Nkukwana (Supervisor), Sipokazi Nyeleka and I (the “visiting professor”)

What is research?

What purpose does it serve? Is it about simply about finding a plant, feeding it to an animal and testing a few parameters, or is it about identifying problems faced by the South African agricultural industry and helping solve those problems through novel solutions?

For a number of years, I have always believed research to be a tool that can be used by scientists to find solutions to the world’s problems. Currently, South Africa is facing the harshest drought in decades. This is undoubtedly related to global warming and climate change that scientists have been talking about for a number of years. Furthermore, the world population is growing exponentially, which means that food production needs to keep up with that growth. It’s however a sad reality that the conventional means of food production that have been used for the past millennia are becoming less and less effective due to climate change. This is where I think research can play a critical role in developing farming strategies that can help mitigate the adverse effects brought upon by global warming and climate change.

I believe that researchers should conduct research that will ultimately help improve the socio-economic status of the country. How do we do this? How do we make sure that scientists are conducting vital and relevant research that will benefit the South African citizens?

Collaboration is the answer for me. There needs to be a partnership between bodies such as SASAS, Industry and Government to ensure that applied and interdisciplinary research is being conducted. Currently we have a system where Industry conducts its own research with a respective institution of learning and when there is a breakthrough, the company will claim Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) to the results and they will only publish the findings after 3 years or so. This is fair enough because the companies invest a lot of money in that research. The only problem is that this type of partnership tends to benefit only corporations and not every Jacob, Julius and Helen in South Africa.

Photoshoot with Professor Michael Scholtz - President of the South African Society for Animal Science
Photoshoot with Professor Michael Scholtz – President of the South African Society for Animal Science

Perhaps there should be a council or commission where Industry, Scientists and the Government are equally represented. This council would be tasked to identify problems in South Africa (which shouldn’t be hard) and assigning those problems to Research Institutes and providing funding. An example from Europe would be, “Improving knowledge transfer between research institutions and industry across Europe”. This document not only deals with the issues of IPR but it also ensures that the associations — businesses and farmers — who are in charge of producing local food will also benefit. All South African citizens will end up benefiting because our country will be not only be food secure but that food will also be affordable to everyone who lives in it. Perhaps a step further would be for the Government to utilize its Extension Officers to ensure that scientific breakthroughs get relayed to all the farmers. This would not only ensure that farmers do not suffer from problems that the country has already solved but it will also ensure that the money spent on research funding doesn’t end up in library shelves collecting dust.

Nothing like your first time!

Most things that you do for the first time are scary. The fear comes from not knowing if you’re doing the right thing; whether you will to meet your own expectations — and everybody else’s! It becomes even scarier if you believe first expectations will last.

Every researcher reaches a point where they have to share their findings for the first time, share with the world what they found and what their conclusions were. For postgraduate students that may come in the form of a dissertation or thesis. But if your research is ready for the real test, you submit to a peer reviewed journal, where the rest of the world can see what you’ve done and judge it.

For me that’s where the real fear starts, having to submit your hard work to an editor and reviewers to scrutinize and tear it all apart. I’ve heard that eyes are windows to the soul, but I believe that writing is the window to the soul. When you have passion for your work, you can’t help but pour your heart and soul into writing — so the thought of someone just crushing that work is no different from someone pulling out your heart and soul.

And even for that horrifying experience, there is a first time…

You have to put yourself out there and have faith in your work, believing that no editor will have your soul for lunch (chuckles).

So… since my previous blog post, what have I achieved? Well, I have managed to complete and submit my MSc dissertation. That’s pretty cool, right? This is one milestone that I am happy and proud to have achieved.

My next mountain to climb is writing a manuscript and submitting it to a peer-reviewed journal.

I’ve never written a manuscript before from scratch, although I have co-authored some. So I do consider this manuscript as my first. To tell you the truth, I have mixed emotions about it, I’m excited that finally I’ll get to share my work but at the same time, I’m scared that it might get rejected. But if you never try then you’ll never know.

So where do I start? Summarizing your 100 page MSc Dissertation into an eight page manuscript is not a simple task! One thing Prof Muchenje normally says is, “Choose a few articles that are similar to your work and use them as your guide”. I’ve found this to be helpful because although you want your work to be novel, it still needs to conform to the laws of scientific writing. So, I went with this approach, and first identified the journal to which I want to submit. This has helped me with the formatting and style.

In the effort to compress my dissertation, the literature review was the first to go, followed by a big chunk of the introduction. The next step was to merge both chapter 3 and 4 — this wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined. Chapter 3 looked at the effect of Moringa oleifera whole seed meal on layer performance and egg quality. Chapter 4 looked at the effect of Moringa oleifera whole seed on fatty acid profile, shelf life and health indices of eggs.

The initial plan was to split these two chapters into different manuscripts but it seems better to merge the two and create one strong manuscript as opposed to having two manuscripts that don’t have much substance. The problem however, is trying to create a single and concise and robust introduction for these two different chapters without leaving out the background and rational of running this study. This is where the template article comes into play. A number of articles have managed to merge these two ideas, so I should have this little conundrum solved in no time.

For me, the template article not only helped me with the shrinking of the document but also the table and figure formatting. Sometimes you hear a supervisor asking, “Where is the science?” Seeing how others visualize results also helps me to show the science better.

So far I have made progress with the manuscript and hopefully I can gather enough courage to send it to my supervisor. Let’s hope the cuts don’t bleed too much.