Seeing the wood for the trees

What is plant blindness?

Take a moment to look at the image below and think about what you see. If the first thing you saw was a giraffe on a cloudy day, you might be suffering from a phenomenon known as plant blindness. That giraffe is but one of hundreds of individual, and equally important, organisms pictured in this species-rich savannah mosaic.

A species-rich savannah (📷 Credit)

Plant blindness is a term coined by botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler to describe the inability to “see or notice the plants in one’s own environment” and “recognise the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs”. This phenomenon is complex and multi-faceted, and influenced by a number of factors. These range from an evolutionary pre-disposition for filtering out “backgrounds” in order to better-see potential danger, to plants being under-represented in the schooling system’s biology curriculum. In the South African system children only receive 22 hours of plant-related biology education between grade R and grade 9, and this has real-world implications from both a conservation and agrofood system perspective.

The disparities in conservation funding and attention are well documented, with conventionally charismatic animal species (such as the above giraffe) receiving disproportionately more resources than their less show-worthy counterparts. And yet, despite being the cornerstone of all ecosystems, plant species receive less than a fraction of the focus that even the most unassuming animal species receive. South Africa, as the third-most biodiverse country in the world, has over 2500 plant species at threat of extinction. As a society, we will never conserve what we don’t value, and we rarely value something we don’t see. Social media has been a powerful tool for conservation science communication to raise awareness of South Africa’s floral biodiversity through campaigns such as the Botanical Society of South Africa’s #FloralFriday series. One of the successes of is that most people would instantly understand the importance of conserving these species and their ecosystems. What I think is less common knowledge is how the conservation of these species is so important to the future of the agrofood system. In 2018 I wanted to see if my friends were aware of how many plant species they rely on in their daily lives, and used this in a short video on plant blindness that I made for a science communications course.

Ending plant blindness is as much about seeing the plants around us as it is in recognising the way we use plants in our daily lives. Food is the most obvious contribution, but plant-based susbtances and materials can be found in almost everything we use. Conserving our native species is invaluable as they act as a reserve for unique genes and phytochemicals, but this is one step in a much larger process and these plants will rely on an extensive network of plant and soil scientists to get them into your daily life. Throughout my undergrad I constantly had my degree, a BScAgric in Applied Plant and Soil Sciences, jokingly referred to as BSc Gardening. While I still find the humour in this, and absolutely do love gardening as a hobby, the joke does reflect how little most people understand about the complexity of the agrofood system that supports them. Plant production is not just about planting a few seeds and hoping for the best, but about unpacking and optimising complex living systems. We face a severe shortage of young scientists in the industry and, although social media is making it more accessible for the public to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into producing plants, plant blindness still affects student’s awareness of career opportunities in the industry. This is not only careers working directly with plants, but avenues such as soil chemistry and irrigation biophysics as well.

We need bright, passionate minds to keep our agrofood system resilient and diverse in the face of climate change. For any budding young scientists reading this still exploring their career options, take a look at some of the possibilities in the plant and soil sciences and don’t hesitate to reach out to scientists on social media!


A Passionate Nation

What does the youth of 1976 have in common with today’s youth?

As we commemorate Youth month and specifically Youth Day on the 16th of June, I have been trying to search for similarities between the youth of 1976 and the youth of today. The students that led the march against the Bantu education policy must have been extremely courageous and passionate. They knew that their actions would result in severe consequences, yet they still soldiered on. The repercussions of their actions lead to some of the educational privileges African pupils have today.

Even though the older generation has labelled us as the ‘doomed generation’, the passion of the historic Soweto Uprising generation still strongly drives the youth of today. You can see it in the artistic videos that are shared in social media, the faces of our national sports team players, and the students and rise against all odds and excel in (previously exclusive) academic fields such as science. Although sometimes misdirected, passion is alive within us and will drive us to greater victory.

In this blog, I will share stories of young South Africans that truly inspire me and give us a glimpse of the South Africa we can become if passion is harnessed and maximised.

Earlier this year I was invited to the Spirit of light event, hosted by the renowned mama Gcina Mhlophe; I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that I would be sharing the podium with Major Mandisa Mfeka. I had read much about her and watched her documentary; her story was truly inspiring. She radiated passion as she narrated her story that night. A young girl from the township of Ntuzuma in KZN who fell in love with airplanes as a result of frequent visits to the Virginia airport in Durban.

In 2008 she joined the  SAAF and was enrolled at Central Flying School in Langebaan, Western Cape, in 2010, going on to get her wings in 2011. Early in 2019, she became South Africa’s first black female fighter pilot and in May, she was one of the pilots who flew at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration. Her tagline is ‘the sky is the baseline’, indeed her passion defied all circumstances and launched her in the sky. 

As an astronomy fanatic, I had always fancied having a celestial body named after me, even if it was a mere shooting star (Meteor). Hence, when I heard about a minor planet named after a young science enthusiast, Siyabulela Xuza, I was instantly intrigued by his work. Xuza, born in Mthatha Eastern Cape, is an energy-engineering expert and entrepreneur with a passion for clean affordable energy.

At the age of 16, propelled by passion, Siyabulela Xuza began experimenting with rocket fuel he made in his mother’s kitchen. After numerous failed launches, his experiments lead him to launch a homemade rocket, The Phoenix, which achieved an altitude of over 1 kilometre. This earned him the junior South African amateur high-powered altitude record. Xuza’s project on solid rocket fuel won gold at the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists in 2006, along with the Dr Derek Gray Memorial Award for the most prestigious project in the country. In 2007, his other brainchild, “African Space: Fueling Africa’s quest to space”, was entered into the International Science and Engineering Fair where it won the “Best of Category” award and a “First Award” in the energy and transportation sector. His work has earned him several leadership positions and awards, including a scholarship to the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

I often get a glimpse of how passionate young South Africans are when I attend career exhibitions. Earlier this year I was part of a team of UKZN staff and students that attended the KZN High Achievers Seminar which was co-hosted by UKZN and the KZN department of education. At this seminar, top achieving learners from schools ranked quantile 1-3 were invited to listen to career talks. During the exhibition, two particular students approached my stand and started asking questions about astronomy and career opportunities. They passionately shared their love for astrophysics and started asking questions about wormholes and space-time dynamics. I was fascinated with the level of knowledge they possessed regardless of the shortage of facilities in their schools. I am certain that these learners, given the support and opportunities, will become the next Einsteins. This conversation left me beaming with pride, indeed, with these kinds of minds our future is in safe hands.

These stories are a testimony of the depth of passion in our youth and how, if cultivated and harnessed, it can significantly transform our nation. ‘Inkunzi isematholeni’; directly translated this isiZulu proverb means that the bull is among the calves. Indeed, the future of this nation is in the hands of the youth; hence, as a community, we need to synchronise our efforts to ensure that the young generation lives to its full potential. This will require the parents to be fully aware of their children’s talents and support them unreservedly, for teachers to impart their knowledge gracefully, and for the government to create a conducive environment for these young minds to flourish.