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Farming in a changing climate

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Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) – Cattle battle to find food as many other parts of South Africa previously experience the worst drought in 23 years.

By Dominic Naidoo

Farming, along with mining, is one of the two sectors which stand at the core of South African economic development. Underpinning food security, agricultural activities constitute an indispensable pillar of sustainable development.

Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) commodity markets and foresight manager Dr Tracy Davids said in a 2021 webinar “that primary agriculture made up 2 percent of the South African economy, while agri-processing contributed another 5 percent on its own.”

Primary agriculture employs 7 percent of the working population, while agri-processing employs 3 percent of the working population with agricultural exports in 2020 totalling R160 billion.

Davids highlighted that the citrus sector recorded a 180 percent increase in export volumes from 2011 to 2020 with the overall agricultural sector growing 13 percent annually.

However, the sector has often been impacted on by factors outside of our control. These could be man-made such as the ongoing crisis in Ukraine or determined by the natural environment such as floods, droughts, pest and disease outbreaks.

Engineering News has found that over the past two decades, agriculture has been subject to drastic economic and social evolutions in the country. On top of that, climate change is progressively, but undeniably, changing the environmental, social and economic conditions affecting agriculture.

The World Bank has reported in 2014 that CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) emissions are now 60 percent higher than the levels in 1990 and growing at about 2.5 percent per year and that without mitigation, CO2e emissions will continue to rise driven primarily by increasing population and economic growth.

If the world continues on this trajectory, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that global mean surface temperatures are likely to increase from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C in 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels.

Climate change poses a significant threat to South Africa’s water resources, food security, health, infrastructure, ecosystem services and biodiversity. Generally speaking, climate change projections for the next 28 years show significant warming (5-8°C) over the interior, a risk of drier conditions to the west and south of the country and a risk of wetter conditions along the eastern part of the country.

Agriculture in SA faces a variety of risks associated with climate change, such as changes in rain patterns, increased evaporation rates, higher temperatures, increased pests and diseases and changes in diseases and pest distribution ranges, reduced yields and spatial shift in optimum growing regions.

The emergence of such risks calls for urgent, ambitious action to ensure the resilience of South Africa’s agricultural sector through adaptation to climate change impacts.

For example, earlier this year, the Western Cape department of agriculture said locust swarms that could wipe out an entire harvest in a matter of hours, affected areas such as Calitzdorp, Ladismith and Oudtshoorn, putting pressure on farmers and agricultural groups Locusts breed and become frenzied during warmer periods.

A study published by Science Direct titled Drought risk for agricultural systems in South Africa found that the country has been frequently affected by droughts in the past four decades with major drought periods including 1982-1984, 1991-1992, 1994-1995, 2004-2005, 2008-2009, 2015-2016, and the most recent in 2018-2020.

This proves what the IPCC reports have warned us about, that extreme climate disasters will become more frequent as the climate warms.

Another study, Climate Change and Agriculture: Impacts and Adaptation Options in South Africa, published in the journal of Water Resources and Economics found that high population growth in Africa and Asia will put further pressure on natural resources and food security at home.

The study used an updated modelling to distinguish between rainfed and irrigated agriculture and implements water as an explicit factor of production for irrigated agriculture and found 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.

Crop production is directly influenced by changes in precipitation and temperature. Precipitation (Rain, snow, sleet, dew, mist etc.) is the main source of all freshwater resources and determines the level of soil moisture, which is a critical input for crop growth. Which is troubling when South Africa is one of the driest countries in the world.

We know the basics. Climate change will make extreme weather phenomena even more extreme and there is very little we can do in the short term to change this. Although South Africa is blessed with mostly optimal agricultural conditions, these conditions are set to change within the next few years if the planet does not turn the carbon tap off.

Floods like the ones we saw in KZN this year will become more frequent and more devastating, saturating soils creating marshlands impossible to farm using current methods. Droughts will be longer and drier than the previous years, baking the soil and killing even the smallest of organisms vital for soil health. And when the droughts reduce veld vegetation to dried out husks, the fires will rage, further sucking out any moisture that was fortunate enough to find refuge.

A 2016 climate change adaptation and agriculture policy brief published by the World Wildlife Fund and the British High Commission showed some troubling findings.

It found that South Africa had little to no substantial guidelines for local governments to translate the broad and very general national climate change action plan into local plans and that existing policies fail to recognise that changes in the availability of water supplies due to climate change may limit the potential for irrigated agricultural expansion in some areas.

Even with the promised $8.5 billion promised funding from COP26, the government has not indicated specific potential sources of financing for adaptation measures in the agricultural sector which has no current financial or regulatory incentives for local governments to include mitigation and adaptation projects within future planning scenarios.

Other worrying findings of the report suggest that government policies shy away from the nexus of research and development which would otherwise translate into market-ready technologies and products, there is little attention given to the need to capacitate extension services and to strengthen weather and climate forecasting and risk management tools, no thorough understanding of the linkages between climate change, trade and industrial development and a severe lack of an integrated, strategic framework for spatial planning and land use management.

The most notable finding to me was the quite visible absence of a national political agenda around climate change adaptation. When I travelled to Scotland last year for the COP26 climate conference, I was astonished to see how normalised climate adaptation and mitigation strategies had become in the UK.

City councils were making a visible effort to reduce their emissions. Public transport was switching to electric with power generated from renewable energy. There were zero-waste policies at most shopping malls and businesses which made entire cities drastically cleaner.

Yes, initially, I did think that this was all just for the conference but when I spoke to some locals, they assured me that it was a way of life. Because, as much as we can blame corporate oil giants and industrial oligarchs for all this, we as citizens, have to carry the responsibility as well.

In a nutshell, farming will become more difficult in South Africa. Yields will decrease while demand will increase. This will push up the demand for imported staple foods such as corn and wheat, which will then lead to an increase in food prices and the cost of living. Nobody wants that.

So,what can we do? We can be conscious of where our food comes from, how much emissions it produces and how much water it drinks up. By changing our habits as consumers, we can help farmers build more sustainable operations that are stronger and more resilient against impending climate disasters.

Dominic Naidoo is an environmental activist and writer.

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