DR MATHABATHA EVODIA SETATI
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) – a phrase coined by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum – is fast gaining traction and is expected to have a profound impact on human development. According to Schwab, the key drivers of the 4IR are emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, additive manufacturing, bio-technologies and virtual augmented reality. Some of these technologies have spurred new developments in agrotechnology, and are gaining interest due to their tangible influence on productivity, quality and Eco-efficiency. The wine industry has already embraced some of these technologies. In a recent Forbes article, Bernard Marr highlighted the use of automated drones fitted with infrared cameras as an emerging technology in precision viticulture, which allows farmers to manage water use and detect stress and disease pressure rapidly. Such adaptations are a necessity in the South African wine industry, which is constantly challenged by water scarcity and veld fires.
According to a recent WineLand Magazine article by Jana Loots, the wine industry has not hesitated to take up precision-based and complementary technologies such as remote sensing, geographic information systems, linear density vegetative indices, nutrient mapping, soil moisture monitoring, and smart irrigation technology. These technologies are a valuable addition to grapevine management and wine production, contributing directly to improved grape quality. In my opinion, the continued development of such technologies will move the industry forward and improve efficiency on the country’s wine farms. In particular, complementing the integrated production of wine (IPW) systems established by the South African wine industry in 1998 with 4IR precision-based technologies will lift local viticulture to greater heights. However, the available precision-based tools are generally lacking in one respect. While multi-spectral imaging systems, for example, can help farmers optimise their pesticide usage, crop sprays, fertilization and irrigation regimes, they typically do not incorporate any valuable information on microbial community structures. Microbial diversity is directly linked to soil and plant health, and most importantly to wine quality. In our work, we have a keen interest in characterising vineyard microbial populations, especially regarding their response to farming practices including organic and conventional viticulture, as well as the application of different cover crops. Furthermore, we isolate, identify and characterise microorganisms relevant to wine fermentation to understand how they contribute to wine quality.
How is this information relevant? In the first place, vineyard soil microorganisms are involved in various biochemical cycles, and can act either as plant pathogens or plant protectants. I believe that with better knowledge and understanding of how these microorganisms shift in response to environmental parameters such as water stress and nutrient availability, we can produce relevant biomarkers that can be incorporated into 4IR precision-based tools to enrich the information gathered by farmers for decision-making. In other words, the farmer would not just know that her interventions were improving soil health, but would also have specifics about which groups of microorganisms were responding positively to the intervention. Is she improving soil health at the risk of supporting potential plant pathogens, or are her interventions creating sustainable, win-win situations? Regarding the microorganisms involved in fermentation, not all of these are desirable. Some of them are spoilage organisms that impart off-flavours to the wine, while others merely use up nutrients without any major contribution to wine aroma or flavour. By identifying and characterising these organisms, we can explore different ways of improving their efficiency.
Indeed, recent research has demonstrated that gene-editing technologies can be used to reduce the off-flavour potential of lager beer yeasts. In our research, we have shown that diverse yeast species and isolates are involved in wine fermentation, some of which tend to be dominant in the South African context. We have used some of these to generate model consortia that can be used to predict fermentation kinetics and outcomes, but our research in this regard is still in its infancy. Overall, I believe that, while research on vineyard and wine fermentation microbial diversity does not contribute directly towards the development of 4IR technologies, these technologies would certainly benefit from such research. Because the production of good quality wine starts in the vineyard, the integration of microbial diversity data into precision viticulture would be ideal for the future of wine production.
- Dr Setati is a Chief Researcher at the Institute for Wine Biotechnology in the Department of Viticulture and Oenology of Stellenbosch University. She was also a winner at the Department of Science and Technology’s 2018 SA Women in Science Awards in the category of Distinguished Women Scientists in Natural and Engineering Sciences,Wine science and 4IR.