It could be argued that South Africa has only two primary economic industries – agriculture and mining.
These are the two sectors that have shed the most jobs in the last 20 years as the economy has evolved towards the secondary and tertiary sectors.
In the National Development Plan (NDP), South Africa aims to increase exports within the agriculture sector. The NDP further reflects that agriculture as a sector has contributed positively to export-driven growth mainly in the Southern African Development Community.
The NDP aims to grow the agricultural sector based on land reform and the growth of irrigated agriculture and land production. It further recognises the need for access to water for the agriculture sector and for investments in technology, research and development.
The NDP sets a target for the creation of 643 000 direct jobs and 326 000 indirect jobs in the agriculture and agro-processing sectors by 2030.
Criticisms of the NDP indicate that the NDP focuses on export-led growth in the agriculture sector to increase output. However, studies of growth in African economies have illustrated that export-led growth is less effective than an increase of production and livestock.
Further criticisms include that the NDP does not consider agriculture within the context of food security.
South Africa generally enjoys food security, but due to consumption of more than one staple food, it has started to become reliant on food imports.
Agriculture is under strain because of high input costs, political uncertainty, global price volatility, climate change and stressed farmers.
South Africa has untapped potential in the form of land, labour and natural resources. The number of jobs created in per unit of investment in agriculture is higher than in other sectors.
Formal agriculture provides employment to 930 000 people, while the smallholder sector provides full or part-time employment to 1.3-million people.
South Africa’s agriculture remains one of the most productive in Africa.
Agriculture also has the potential to positively contribute to the country's nutrition and this, given the high levels of poverty in South Africa, can have a multiplier effect in contributing to reducing the levels of poverty and inequality.
South Africa has a total surface area of 122 million hectares of which 17 million (14%) is arable. Of the arable land, only 1.3 million hectares is under irrigation with rainfall being erratic and unevenly distributed.
Agriculture is a sector which is heavily influenced by weather patterns as well as being exposed to changes in the global markets.
Where do we go then with agriculture? In real terms, it is a sector that is losing jobs, yet the NDP sets it at the forefront of job creation. The data suggests that to get the most out of the sector we need to become less reliant on weather patterns and invest heavily in irrigation.
We should therefore consider private sector capital investment as well as research and development that can propel us to the forefront of agricultural technology.
Furthermore, we should consider agriculture from the perspective of the nation’s food security. Scenario planning should provide us with realistic estimates of how much we consume over the next 15 years and we should develop our plans to reduce our reliance on imports to the bare minimum and invest in sub-agriculture sectors where we currently import, but can produce.
Given government's land reform programme, we must establish hi-tech agricultural colleges to produce the skills of the future.
The agriculture debate is much more complex that it appears on the surface. But perhaps digging below the surface is exactly what we need.
Carrim is the chief executive of the National Youth Development Agency