Improving agricultural yield through better science

Agricultural Research Council (ARC): Improving agricultural yield through better science


What is the role of the Agricultural Research Council?

The Agriculture Research Council (ARC) is a national public entity established under the Agricultural Research Act. Its Board is appointed by the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Board then appoints the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation.

Our primary mandate is to conduct research and development in the agricultural sector, and we look for scientific solutions that would assist the agricultural sector to remain productive. For example, we look towards developing new vaccines for animal diseases, developing new diagnostic tools to be used in laboratories and sometimes on the farms for possible illnesses amongst livestock. We work towards providing expert advice to livestock farmers in terms of their animal breeding. We bring in new technologies to assist them in their breeding programmes and we have very good scientific data, which they can utilise to manage their animals, and which assists in selling these animals at a great market value (because there are records that allow them to trace the pedigree of the animals).

What work do you do in terms of crops?

We do a lot of work in producing new crop varieties that are suitable for and adapted to local conditions, and these enable the farmers to be productive. For instance, we released a maize crop variety in December 2014 that is 20% more drought-tolerant than anything out there. It is called Water Efficient Maize for Africa and is something we developed together with partners in a number of African countries and the International Centre for Maize. Farmers are getting increased yields – sometimes double the yields – and we are hoping that much of that will be available in this coming season.

We also provide training and skills development for commercial or small farmers and even for farm workers, which begins to ensure that the people have the right skills.

What would happen in the absence of an organisation such as ARC?

People in the agricultural sector would be forced to pay a premium for scientific information. At the moment, our work is partly subsidised through a parliamentary grant. Some of the food varieties we’ve developed are varieties that the farmers are able to grow and market so, in the absence of ARC, they would be buying the rights to grow these particular varieties and paying high royalties—probably in dollars.

What is the internal process for determining what research you are going to do or what sort of products to work on?

The way we work is consultative in nature. We respond to the demands of the commodity organisations such as Grain SA, Potatoes South Africa or Hortgro, who tell us what they would like to see and what kind of challenges or problems they have, and we then respond with possible solutions that we can develop. We agree on how the work will be funded, as some projects are 50% funded and some are 100% funded.

We do pretty much the same thing with the government to determine which projects would be of national importance, for example, drought-tolerant maize and climate change. You could say it’s demand-led, but it’s prioritised according to the expectations of those who use much of this science and technology.

What do you consider to be the main challenges facing agriculture today?

The biggest challenge at the moment is that South African farmers are faced with rising input costs in the form of fertiliser and pesticides, and so on, as the rand weakens. The water quality is also significant and, in this respect, challenges include industrial pollution, acid mine drainage and pollution arising from increased urbanisation.

The quality of the water is under pressure, which threatens the ability of farmers to ensure they are using high-quality water to irrigate crops and this could create potential food safety challenges.

Another big challenge that we face is that the amount of land available to agriculture has been rapidly declining and a lot of high-potential land is being lost to other uses. Mining, for example, is taking over what could be highly suitable land for agriculture.

In addition to the increased input costs, we are beginning to face increasing input costs in wages, which impacts the profitability of farming.

Furthermore, you have a cohort of highly skilled, experienced commercial farmers that are declining in numbers—mostly due to retirement—and we are not replacing them at the same rate as we should be. The incoming entrants are relatively unskilled and that is presenting a challenge around meeting our food security needs.

What is ARC doing to boost our productive capacity?

One of the key things we have been doing as ARC is examining a lot of unutilised or underutilised land within the country in terms of its potential to be used as an alternative area for crop production.

We are mapping some of the characteristics of those soils, especially in communal areas and the former homeland areas to try to see if some of these could be utilised to increase production. We have been obtaining good results in developing crop varieties that are highly productive. Traditionally, if you planted maize and you were producing, as a commercial farmer, 4 tonnes per hectare, you could now produce 10 tonnes per hectare on the same unit of land.

What are some of the major changes in the industry that have been experienced since ARC was created?

There used to be commodity boards and these were not only a source of funding for the ARC but also a mechanism around which the priorities for agriculture were determined in consultation with the farmers.

Another change is that we have moved from having more than 150 000 large-scale commercial farmers in the 90s to less than 30 000 today. Some of the farms are bigger now, they’re more competitive, and the efficiencies are also greater.

On the other hand, you then also have an increase in the number of smallholder farmers. Some of them are new to commercial farming and the challenge is that, in many respects, they are heavily under-resourced and some of them have skills challenges. We need to change our business model and we also need to change how we interact with these particular farmers. It is for this particular reason that we’ve since developed what we call a smallholder agriculture development programme in the ARC.

What are some of ARC’s major successes?

Our ability to develop new scientific solutions, such as the drought-tolerant maize cultivar, a new vaccine for heartwater and a five-in-one vaccine are recent examples of interesting research and development.

The five-in-one vaccine for Rift-Valley fever-sheep pox, goat pox, per pestis ruminantis and Lumpy skin disease vaccine is going to bring down the cost of inputs for farmers quite significantly and, secondly, its one of those things that will enable us to manage animal disease much more effectively.

One of the successes that we are proud of is the ability of the ARC to adapt to the changing environment and to remain an organisation that is relevant in delivering scientific solutions to a broad spectrum of farmers in South Africa, the African continent and globally.

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