Hortgro establishes a new phytosanitary laboratory to support market access. By Engela Duvenage.
On 14 February 2022, the South African pome- and stone-fruit industry felt some love when construction began on the Phytosanitary Laboratory — PHYLA — in Stellenbosch. The new facility was made possible through R4 million of funding from Hortgro. If all goes as planned, work will be completed by mid-April 2022.
“We will be doing integrated research that takes both the best ways to kill insects as well as fruit quality into consideration,” says project leader Dr Shelley Johnson. Johnson is a phytosanitary entomologist and market access specialist with Hortgro. She has been seconded to the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at Stellenbosch University since 2006.
PHYLA has been five years in the making. Plans for the facility were guided by what Dr Johnson saw while visiting the Plant and Food Research New Zealand head office at Mount Albert, Auckland. Plant and Food Research provides research and development services — including phytosanitary research — to the New Zealand horticulture industry.
In addition, PHYLA manager Dr Renate Smit toured the Tropical Crop and Commodity Research Unit of the United States Department of Agriculture in Hilo, Hawaii.
Initially, the PHYLA team had only hoped for scaled-up fumigation facilities. Lengthy delays due to COVID ended up working to their advantage. They started dreaming bigger about having their own cold-storage and fumigation rooms to allow for more extensive research. The new facility is intended to accommodate both cold-sterilisation and fumigation trials of a high standard.
Taking ownership of market access
According to Jacques du Preez, general manager of trade and markets at Hortgro, there has never before been such pressure on market access from a phytosanitary perspective.
“Market access in terms of existing and new markets is critical to the sustainability and survival of our industry,” says Du Preez. “Without the technical capacity and infrastructure that the industry is putting in place, we would definitely have lost markets, without new ones opening up to us.”
Du Preez stresses that the industry must take ownership of its future. “The facilities being put in place through PHYLA, and the knowledge generated in the process, will help ensure this. It provides us with the capacity to react quickly to issues that may affect market access, and will ensure that we are no longer reliant on the extremely limited outside capacity available to fulfil this function.”
Previously, South African tests of cold-sterilisation treatments for pome and stone fruit, for instance, could only be conducted at a laboratory and cold-storage facility in Mbombela — previously known as Nelspruit. Fruit and even the insects needed for the trials had to be transported there from the Western Cape — some 1700 kilometres away. “It was not ideal,” notes Johnson.
In terms of fumigation studies, her research group at Stellenbosch University could only conduct laboratory-scale trials. In 2020, thanks to funding received from the Post-harvest Innovation Programme, the team could upscale their ongoing work on the use of ethyl formate as a possible phytosanitation agent when they acquired an airtight container. It was installed on the premises where PHYLA is now being established.
“We did small-scale stuff, always with an eye on upscaling and getting additional funding to do more research in-house,” explains Johnson.
Integrated research to support trade
An existing building at Welgevallen, the experimental farm of the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University, is being refurbished for PHYLA. The facility will include laboratories, cold rooms, and a fumigation room. The construction is being done by recognised experts in the pack-house world.
“The health and safety requirements associated with the facility have been addressed by a series of professional engineers and technicians. The proposed fumigation facility will be operated under strict operating procedures and managed appropriately,” says Smit.
“Once completed, we will run the necessary tests to ensure that everything is in order, before going full-steam ahead with research, and also allowing postgraduate students to start working on new projects,” adds Smit.
Johnson explains that market changes toward more environmentally friendly treatments necessitate the development of new post-harvest protocols. “PHYLA will also allow us to test protocols developed in other countries under local conditions and on local cultivars, as per market requirements for the export of pome and stone fruit.”
According to Johnson, countries such as China and Japan, for instance, want specific pest-mortality data, sometimes on specific cultivars, even if the treatments are already approved in other markets. “These tests need to be done before export protocols will be approved and signed.”
Ultimately, the sustainability of the pome- and stone-fruit industry depends on continuous research at facilities like PHYLA. “To keep exporting fruit and to maintain markets, we need treatments that work,” highlights Johnson. “There are constantly new challenges, new pests that have to be dealt with.”
Bonus: PHYLA at a glance
The PHYLA research facility will include:
- Four controlled-environment cold rooms (3.0 x 2.5 metres) with a capacity of 3 500 kilograms of fruit per room.
- A fumigation chamber inside a controlled-environment cold room.
- Laboratory and workspace for researchers.
- A wet laboratory for prepping fruit and evaluating treatments.
- A facility housing insect colonies.
- Storage facilities.
- A refrigeration plant, a nitrogen generator, and monitoring equipment.