Plant improvement


A Practical Overview


“Plant improvement”, words that many use but relatively few understand fully. Studies and surveys have shown that a large number of stakeholders are not well informed about the manner in which plant improvement is implemented and governed. Our aim is thus to provide a broad overview of the plant improvement regulatory landscape in South Africa. We hope that this will aid readers in understanding the structure of the industry and the duties and responsibilities of the various role players in the value chain.

Over 10 000 years ago, a conscious effort of selection on wheat was apparently the first major human step in plant improvement and marked the beginning of agriculture. This first step in plant improvement has gradually resulted in the many cultivars and varieties available today. In addition to plant breeding, plant improvement covers a broad range of activities including, trade control and other related matters such as certification, variety registration, cleaning, packaging, and quality testing of plant propagating material. All these activities are governed, currently, by the South African Plant Improvement Act 53 of 1976.

Rules of engagement

The Plant Improvement Act (PIA) provides for regulation of certain kinds of plants of economic importance/significance by means of certain provisions and standards as per the preamble of the Act. PIA provides for the registration of plant material facilities, prescribes minimum standards for premises and minimum quality standards for plants and propagating material. In addition to this, the Act also provides for the establishment of the national certification schemes which prescribe the standards for various plant kinds on which the schemes are applicable. Plant material presented for certification must comply with all the requirements in order to be certified and it is the duty of all role-players to ensure that plant material is compliant with these standards. The reasons for the regulation of plant material as detailed by the PIA and associated certification schemes are to ensure sustainable, high quality agricultural production in South Africa for food security.

In addition to PIA, other legislative instruments that govern plant improvement in South Africa include: Plant Breeders Rights Act, 1976 (Act no 15 of 1976); Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 (Act no 15 of 1997); and Agricultural Pests Act, 1983 (Act no 36 of 1983).

Role Players

The South African Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), (previously known as the Department of Agriculture) identified the importance of physical and genetic status of plant material circa 1954. In order to regulate the status of plant material, The South African Plant Improvement Association was established in 1964 to pay attention to aspects of plant material for the wine and deciduous fruit industries.

From a practical standpoint, the functioning of the Plant Certification scheme falls under the Governmental Directorates of:

  • Plant Production
  • Plant Health
  • Inspection Services
  • Genetic resources

The Department proceeded to promulgate the various Plant Certification Schemes from 1990 to 1993 to manage plant improvement through designated authorities. These authorities manifest in the form of the various Plant Improvement Associations (PIAs) and are responsible for carrying out the duties as set out in the Plant Certification Schemes. There are certain roles, duties and functions, with regard to the certification schemes, that are delegated to the Associations, via the Minister, by virtue of the Act. The Deciduous Fruit Plant Improvement Association (DPA) and the Vine Improvement Association (VIA) have been appointed by the Minister as Designated Authorities for the Deciduous Fruit Plant Certification Scheme and the Certification Scheme for Vitis, respectively. The roles of the Associations are to operate and manage the day-to-day activities of the certification schemes for deciduous fruit and grapevines respectively.

According to the Schemes, only registered Plant Improvement Organisations (PIOs) can apply for registration of clones of official varieties and issue certified plant material. Furthermore, only nurseries registered in terms of the Schemes can propagate certified trees or vines. At this point it is important to note that compliance with the Plant Certification Schemes is voluntary and all plants and plant material not governed by the various Plant Certification Schemes are under the supervision and authority of the Department (DALRRD) only. It is the vision to have all plant material handled in accordance with the requirements of the schemes, however, unfortunately sometimes plant material is “fast-tracked” outside of the Schemes requirements and only introduced into the Schemes over time. 

PlantSA, a NPO, was registered in 2004 by the DPA and VIA Boards and the PlantSA Board of Directors represents the two associations. PlantSA has the role of performing the day-to-day duties, activities and functions of the Schemes and ensuring that plant material complies with the Certification Scheme requirements, and also oversees the correct labelling of certified plant material.

In 1974, industry stakeholders established The South African Plant Improvement Organisation (SAPO) Trust, whose aim was to provide improved plant material to the industry. Since then, other private PIOs have sprung up. The PIOs contribute to plant improvement through the selection and evaluation of new and improved clones of varieties from foreign and local breeding programmes.

It is up to each PIO to ensure that the plant material is handled in compliance with the standards set out by the Schemes and therefore in compliance with the PIA.  In short, each PIO bears the responsibility of evaluation, maintenance, development, improvement, and multiplication of propagation material. Certified plant material is generated by the multiplication of propagation material from Nucleus through Foundation to Mother Blocks. This is referred to as the classic route of plant propagation. It is the responsibility of each PIO to manage and inspect their own material, however all processes are audited by Plant SA before any propagation material can be certified. This certified propagation material is then provided to nurseries, registered in terms of the PIA for tree and vine production.

Nurseries need to apply to the DPA or VIA in order to be registered to produce certified nursery plants. Each registered nursery supplies PlantSA with a nursery report that are then checked against the declared issuances of scion and rootstock plant material from the PIOs to the nurseries. The graft combinations propagated from certified plant material undergo three different inspections performed by independent PlantSA inspectors. Compliant nursery plants are certified and marked with the applicable certification labels.

As previously mentioned, compliance with the Plant Certification Schemes is voluntary but the use of uncertified plant material can be detrimental to growers. A previous SAPO Trust study has found that a fruit grower could lose up to R3 million/ha over 25 years by using uncertified material. ( and that the negative effect of viruses on fruit size and yield can result in a 30% to 80% reduction in market prices depending on fruit type and target market.

While Government has the primary oversight and responsibility to ensure plant improvement is regulated, it is ultimately the responsibility of all role players to ensure that the regulation is adhered to so that individual growers, agricultural bodies and the entire agricultural sector at large benefits from a robust agricultural industry built on high-quality crops.

See Plant Improvement explained in this diagram: Plant Improvement Diagram 

Dr Waheed Mahomed with contributions by Rachel Kriel of PlantSA and Joan Sadie, Registrar of Plant Improvement