Associate Professor of Plant Breeding at UKZN Professor Julia Sibiya featured in an episode of PBS International’s Plant Breeding Stories podcast where she spoke about her career in the field of plant breeding, her research on the improvement of cereal crops, and the importance of encouraging young people to consider careers in agriculture.
Sibiya is the Academic Leader for the Production Sciences cluster in UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Vice-President of the African Plant Breeders Association (APBA).
PBS International is a United Kingdom-based pollination control company that produces fabric pollination bags and tents for plant breeders and seed producers. Its podcast series provided insight into how plant breeding affects diets, farming systems and the environment by profiling breeders, scientists and entrepreneurs and discussing their work and contemporary challenges in agriculture.
Sibiya initially wanted to be a doctor in her home country of Zimbabwe, but found herself studying agriculture, choosing to focus on plants when she realised that the tools and techniques applied were similar to those used in medicine.
She completed her undergraduate studies in Zimbabwe before undertaking a master’s degree at Ohio State University in the United States, focusing on plant virology. She lectured at the University of Zimbabwe before completing her PhD studies at UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), focusing on biotechnology tools to combat plant diseases.
Sibiya has been on the staff of UKZN since 2011. Her research focuses on the second most important cereal after maize in Africa, sorghum. Prized for cultivation in dry areas, some types of sweet-stemmed sorghum are used for biofuels, and Sibiya is examining the development of high-yielding and dual-purpose hybrid varieties of the plant that yield both grains for consumption and high sugars for biofuel production.
She aims to achieve a selection of these mutually exclusive traits by developing a selection index using newly-available technologies such as gene editing, and her team is using a male sterile system to breed and develop hybrids of the self-pollinating crop.
She is also collaborating with the University of California Davis to enhance the productivity and nutritional quality of grain sorghum, even under drought conditions. This involves improving iron, zinc, proteins such as lysine, and important micronutrients.
Sibiya provided background on the regulations around the release and commercialisation of genetically modified and enhanced crops in southern Africa, and spoke about the APBA and its contributions to plant breeding.
‘With climate change, the challenges that we face are similar no matter where you are in the world. If we network as different associations, we can help one another to address some of these issues,’ said Sibiya.
‘By connecting with people with whom we can do collaborative research, we can assist one another and receive assistance from those with the infrastructure or skills to solve global issues that affect food and nutritional security,’ she added.
On attracting young people to agriculture, Sibiya suggested that ignorance about agriculture persists, and emphasised the highly scientific nature of the field.
‘The challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition in most African countries can be addressed if we train more agricultural scientists. Training at postgraduate level will help students innovate and run successful programmes, and influence policy to increase the resources available to fund research and improve nutrition,’ she said.
Sibiya made reference to her time spent leading part of the Improved Masters in Cultivar Development for Africa programme, funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa at three African universities, which embedded students in organisations where they could apply their skills, gain practical experience and kick-start their careers.
As a woman in academia, Sibiya also touched on the challenge of balancing work and family life.
She is applying gene editing and genotyping by sequencing technologies to enhance breeding efforts for under-researched orphan indigenous crops that have nutritional, medicinal, environmental and cultural benefits. She said that opportunities exist to diversify and focus on other value crops, to collaborate with the private sector and other institutes, to apply new technologies, and to interest more young people in plant breeding.
Words: Christine Cuénod
Photograph: Albert Hirasen