NSTF Special Annual Theme Award: Plant Health

Mike Wingfield wins NSTF award

In South Africa, you really can’t talk about 2020 being the United Nations “International Year of Plant Health” without discussing Professor Michael Wingfield. This plant pathologist and entomologist is globally recognised for his research in plant health.

He has made a lifetime’s worth of contributions to the identification and management of plant diseases, as well as the education and mentorship of very large numbers of plant pathologists and entomologists globally. In fact, he’s considered the person responsible for developing the field of tree health in South Africa.

He and his students have conducted research related to identifying and diagnosing plant pests (specifically pathogens and insects), studying their origins and pathways of global movement, and the management of plant health problems caused by these organisms. He has published more than 1 000 scientific articles on these topics and is one of South Africa’s most highly cited researchers.

In 1998, Wingfield established the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria (UP) and was its director for 20 years. With its roots in forest tree health, FABI is now a world-renowned postgraduate institute promoting transdisciplinary research and education across the disciplines that underpin all aspects of plant health. It is also home to one of the first Department of Science and Innovation/National Research Foundation “Centres of Excellence” and contributes substantial evidence-based knowledge for policy decision-making.

FABI is also a global centre of excellence, attracting distinguished scientists and postgraduate scientists from all over the world. For example, the tree health project in FABI has become the single largest programme in its field in the world, with substantial research programmes embedded globally. Wingfield sees FABI as a singularly important career highpoint.

From the outset, Wingfield has partnered with industries, locally and globally, to resolve plant disease problems. He is renowned for having identified for the first time, the majority of emerging disease problems in planted forests globally.

Many of the research projects led by Wingfield, his collaborators and his students in FABI have involved developing new technologies. Examples relate to the identification of pathogens and pests, developing disease- and pest-tolerant planting stock, and methods to improve quarantine practices. There are also many examples of developing unique biological control systems for pests.

Wingfield has held many distinguished positions and is highly awarded. Of note are the honorary doctorates from two universities with the strongest forestry programmes in the world: University of British Colombia, Canada, and North Carolina State University, US.

Wingfield stepped down as FABI director two years ago but continues as a professor in the institute, as well as an advisor to UP’s Executive around establishing new research platforms.

“People need to understand that plant health and human health are deeply interconnected,” says Wingfield. This goes beyond food availability and food quality. The devastation of forests due to alien invasive pests and pathogens impacts quality of life, access to water, clean air, and other ecosystem services. “Every tree has a microbiome and is part of an ecosystem. When trees die, there is a huge knock-on effect and this is poorly understood,” he says.

“I see many similarities between tree health and the Covid-19 pandemic. Trees, like people, live for long time periods. When they encounter novel pests, they are without defence systems. This is catastrophic for trees in natural ecosystems. In contrast, humans can produce vaccines, among other measures. People don’t realise how deeply fragile plant life is. Invasive alien pests and pathogens threaten humans as deeply as Covid-19.”

Debbi SchultzMail & Gaurdian

Video: NSTF South32 Awards 2019/2020

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