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SA agriculture should face climate change head-on

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact &; Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; Photo: Supplied

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact &; Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected] Photo: Supplied

Published Feb 3, 2021


By Thulasizwe Mkhabela

SOUTH African agriculture should face climate change head-on using science and innovation

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There is consensus that South Africa is likely to experience higher temperatures and less rainfall as a result of climate change. It is also not inconceivable that these changes are already taking place.

These climatic changes will result in changes in regional water endowments and soil moisture, which will in turn affect the productivity of cropland, leading to changes in food production and international trade patterns.

High population growth elsewhere in Africa and Asia will put further pressure on natural resources and food security in South Africa.

The situation will be exacerbated by other growing pressures on agricultural land such as housing, industrial and other development needs competing for the same finite land.

However, it is not all doom and gloom, and the climate change discourse should not be driven by fear and hyperboles, but rather be grounded in credible science and data-driven in order to find appropriate solutions.

It has been said that for South Africa to adapt to the adverse consequences of global climate change, it would require yield improvements of more than 20 percent over baseline investments in agricultural research and development.

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A doubling of irrigation development, on the other hand, will not be sufficient to reverse adverse impacts from climate change in the country.

The impacts of climate change on agriculture are real and thus are a key reason for concern. It is now widely acknowledged that adaptation would help to alleviate the worst of the potential impacts. In this article, I take adaptation beyond the usual crop management and selection, and expound on the effects of expanded irrigation and accelerated technological progress.

While the points raised here may be relevant for other countries, the focus is on South Africa, in as much as it is possible to study an individual economy in isolation from its trading partners.

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Agriculture in South Africa is often perceived as a successful sector and most of the agricultural production is dominated by medium- to large-scale farms.

However, South Africa has a dual agricultural economy, comprising well-developed commercial farms and a large number of small-scale subsistence farms.

Commercial farms are mainly large-scale, capital intensive and export oriented, accounting for around 90 percent of the total agricultural production and covering about 86 percent of the country's cropland. Small-scale farms, in contrast, rely on traditional methods of production and are labour intensive, employing around 86 percent of the total farm labour.

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There are concerted efforts from a policy perspective to bridge the chasm between these dichotomous groups. However, climate change is a compounding factor given that small-scale farmers are often more vulnerable to its vagaries due to limited ability to cope and mitigate such when compared to their large-scale counterparts.

Agricultural research and development is an important weapon in the arsenal to combat the deleterious effects of climate change on the agricultural sector. South Africa, through the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) to a large extent, has been proactive in undertaking research aimed at climate-change-proofing the agricultural sector, thus rendering the sector resilient, especially the smallholder agriculture sector.

Recently, the ARC developed and released a drought tolerant maize cultivar to mitigate the effects of climate change on production. The new cultivar is known as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa and it can withstand adverse soil moisture deficiencies and still produce comparably good yields ensuring that farmers do not suffer income losses due to dry weather conditions.

Furthermore, South Africa has also produced yellow fleshed sweet potato cultivars, rich in vitamin A (carotene – a precursor of Vitamin A) and these are more drought, pests and diseases tolerant. These sweet potato cultivars are of improved nutritive value, contributing to better food and nutrition security in the country, especially among resource-poor smallholder farmers.

Another innovation being championed by the ARC, among others, is the promotion of indigenous leafy vegetables such as amaranths (morogo in Sesotho/Setswana; Imifino/imbhuya in Zulu).

Lastly, the value of indigenous livestock breeds such as indigenous goats and chickens, and Nguni, Afrikaner and Bonsmara cattle breeds is another coping mechanism against climate change as these breeds are hardy and well-adapted to local, even changing, climatic conditions.

Available data gleaned from credible climate change models driven by the South African Weather Services, ARC and the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research indicated that the western parts of South Africa will become drier and hotter, while the south-eastern parts will become wetter as a result of climate change.

The implications are that production of staple crops such as maize will move towards the southern-eastern parts of South Africa, away from the current so-called maize triangle comprised of parts of the Free State and North West provinces.

Unfortunately, emerging anecdotal evidence is showing that substantial quantities of high agricultural value soils are being lost to other activities as the pressure on land continues to mount. Agricultural land is under threat of being lost through developments, including housing, commercial and industrial.

A cursory look reveals that developments such as shopping malls and warehouses are mushrooming on prime agricultural land. One just has look along the R21 route to OR Tambo International Airport to see the developments on recent farmland that produces significant amounts of maize and soybeans.

A number of agribusinesses have also converted prime agricultural land into housing and commercial economic activities as they diversify. A relook is needed at the subdivision of Agricultural Land Act 70 of 1970 as amended, and the Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act Repeal Act 64 of 1998, in order to protect prime agricultural land against rezoning, especially the face of climate change. All these interventions should be predicated on sound and credible science that is available in the country.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and is group executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.


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