Stellenbosch University postgraduates Busi Mahlobo, Sakeus Kafula, Tshepo Morokong and Zander Venter are all breaking new ground as being among the first students in South Africa to write the degree MSc Sustainable Agriculture behind their names. They received their degrees on Monday 14 March during Stellenbosch University’s March graduation ceremony.
In December 2015, Tawanda Marandure led the way by being the first student to have received this degree.
The graduates all enrolled in 2014, when the MSc Sustainable Agriculture Programme was launched as an initiative between the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch, Wageningen University Research in the Netherlands, and Conservation South Africa.
Potential food system practitioners much needed now
“With this year’s drought, food price hikes and new market complexities because of the AGOA trade agreement, these graduates couldn’t have come at a better time,” says a proud Prof Kennedy Dzama, team leader of Sustainable Agriculture South Africa and chair of the Department of Animal Sciences at Stellenbosch University. “As potential future practioners and policy makers for our country’s food system, they have been equipped to deal with complex and controversial topics such as climate change, genetically modified foods, food wastage, land reform and many more.”
“We are profoundly happy about this milestone, as well as excited about the fact that all our students have completed their degrees on time,” says Prof Dzama.
“These young scientists have been equipped with a number of quantitative tools to tackle problems and issues in agriculture from a systems and transdisciplinary approach,” explains Julia Harper, Food Security Initiative Manager at Stellenbosch University who is also involved in the project management for the programme. “They have studied a number of issues ranging from sustainability of value chains in small farming communities to those in large scale commercial farming operations”
Cover crops as soil conditioners
The theoretic base of the programme is grounded in real-world applications through a unique module called Work Integrated Learning. Students work with a member of industry – Distell in the case of the 2014 intake – to develop a research proposal that tackles a relevant industry-related problem. It forms the basis for their mini-thesis.
The graduates had to help Distell solve a problem of biodiversity loss and gradual soil degradation experienced in most vineyards in the Western Cape Province. They investigated the potential use of indigenous plants as cover crops in vineyards. They interviewed a number of farmers to establish what they would ideally want from a cover crop. This was followed by an intense literature search, visits to indigenous plant botanic gardens and key informant interviews with conservationists and viticulture researchers. A number of indigenous plants were in the process selected that can be used as cover crops to increase vineyard biodiversity while also reducing soil degradation.
Feeding the world whilst preserving the environment
The programme consists of modules ranging across the fields of science, humanities and economics, and touches on a broad range of topics that deal with the complex problem of agricultural sustainability.
Through the coursework students tackle questions such as: How do we feed the world whilst maintaining ecosystem services and social equity and justice? Can organic agriculture feed the world? How has the history of Apartheid influenced our agricultural landscape, and how can we address barriers to emerging small-scale black farmers?
The first year modules include: Introduction to Systems thinking and complexity, Sustainable Soil Management, Sustainable Plant Production and Protection, Sustainable Animal Production, Biometry, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Agrilandscapes, Sociology of Sustainable Agriculture, Economics of Sustainable Agriculture, Systems Analysis and simulation and Analysis of Land-use Systems.
In their second year, students carry out individual research projects.
The first crop of graduates who enrolled in 2014 are Busi Mahlobo, Sakeus Kafula, Tshepo Morokong, Zander Venter and Tawanda Marandure. They will be available on 14 March 10am at the Coetzenberg Centre in Stellenbosch for questions regarding the course and issues related to sustainable agriculture in our country.