The University of Pretoria officially launched its Institute for food, Nutrition and Well-being (IFNuW) - which draws together more than 100 experts related to food security research across five faculties and more than 30 disciplines - to government and food industry supply chain stakeholders last month.
According to Prof Sheryl Hendriks, the director of the institute, IFNuW seeks to address underlying vulnerabilities and find ways of building more resilient agriculture and food systems to reduce hunger and malnutrition, and promote consumption behaviour that will ensure human productivity and well-being.
Hendriks says that the appropriateness of and need for research at the interface of production, food safety, health, nutrition, and economics is evident when one considers recent global and African crises, which have highlighted the world’s limited ability to solve complex, often-recurring problems in the agriculture and food system.
“Tackling these problems requires innovative approaches to research beyond traditional knowledge silos and demands creative ways of communicating the scientific findings to policy-makers and communities,” she states. “This is why we are taking the trans-disciplinary enquiry approach, which encourages active research conducted by teams of experts from different disciplines - Natural and Agricultural Sciences, Health Sciences, Education, Law, and Veterinary Science - working across traditional knowledge boundaries to create new knowledge and solve complex problems.”
Hendriks explains that food, nutrition and well-being is just one of the university-wide institutional research themes (IRTs) that have been identified to address complex social issues of strategic importance to the optimal functioning of the country and its people.
The institute’s five research themes are:
• Theme A: Sustainable animal and plant-based food production in a resource-constrained environment. Prof Ned Donkin, a professor in Animal and Wildlife Science, is the interim theme leader. According to Donkin, his task is to build a bridge between the plant, animal production, and veterinary components involved in the research theme.
• Theme B: food safety, biosecurity, public health and regulatory control, with Prof Lise Korsten from the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology as theme leader. Korsten says that the field of food safety is highly specialised and technical. “In addressing food safety and regulatory issues it is crucial to build expertise across disciplines. For example, the know-how of the Faculty of Law is crucial when it comes to addressing complex legal matters, and international trade specifications.”
• Theme C: Health-promoting foods to address malnutrition and diseases associated with over-nutrition. Prof John Taylor, a professor in the Department of food Science, is the theme leader. Taylor maintains that SA has two huge health burdens, namely that 40% of children are malnourished, while the same percentage of people are obese. He says the four research teams managed under his leadership aim to promote indigenous African grains and traditional African foods that are biofortified and affordable, and can help to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies and diseases associated with over-nutrition.
• Theme D: Facilitating behavioural change for improved health and well-being. The theme leader is Prof Ronél Ferreira, associate professor and head of the Department of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Education. Ferreira views schools as potential areas for social change, and her research group would like to facilitate adjusted behaviour in resource-constrained communities by involving both teachers and children as agents of change. “In the long run the objective is to teach parents and other community members to improve the nutrient value of the food grown and served at home.”
• Theme E: food security and nutrition impacts of policies and programmes. The theme leader is IFNuW director and research leader, Prof Sheryl Hendriks, who is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.
Hendriks explains that the role of the IRT theme leaders is to facilitate and build strong teams of researchers in each of the five thematic areas, create platforms of collaboration and integration of expertise, and provide an enabling research environment for innovation and a significant increase in postgraduate output and research publications.
She adds: “IFNuW’s vision is to be the leading international centre of excellence in trans-disciplinary research and postgraduate training to address current constraints to attaining the Millennium Development Goals related to food, nutrition and well-being in sub-Saharan Africa in comprehensive and innovative ways by 2020.
“Our research and training must therefore respond to the needs of stakeholders to promote the long term health and wellness of people, and support sound policy-making with regard to food, nutrition and well-being. Together with strategic national and international partners, IFNuW also aims to scale-up capacity significantly in this area through the development of leading professionals and researchers.
We therefore welcome proposals for joint venture partnerships from the food industry supply chain to take the researchers’ priorities, identified in each thematic area, forward so that it can be put to use in policy and practice.”
IFNuW: Tel 012-420-3811; email@example.com; website: www.up.ac.za/ifnuw