Modelling change, changing models

Climate-smart approaches to agriculture

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Agriculture plays an important role in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the South African economy. Just to give an indication, during the 2017 technical, recession the agricultural sector contributed 2,5% towards the GDP. The sector has also been identified as a key job creator. And it is expected that the sector will create 1 million jobs by 2030.

Despite this positive outlook, this important sector of the economy is facing massive challenges due to climatic condition changes and weather patterns. The climatic changes will rapidly make a huge impact on the country if not enough care is taken to mitigate their effects. Although the changes may be gradual and slow, the long-term effects are far more drastic.

The effects of climate change have the power to affect even countries with plenty of food reserves. Climate change is evidently becoming a reality. Temperatures are increasingly rising at a high rate and the coastal regions are increasing by 1-2 degrees C. The Agricultural Research Council (ARC) predicts that by 2050 global warming will have increased by 2 degrees, and will mostly exacerbate desert areas already dry and warm and producing agri products marginally. In South Africa, summer crops like maize will still be produced in the same areas as they are currently, but in smaller volumes. The same applies to potatoes, sunflower and soya.

This scenario paints a very bad picture if one considers that agricultural land is also decreasing due to factors such as mining, construction of big industrial warehousing and human settlement. These sectors are also contributing towards the country’s GDP in their own right.

However, as the sector is facing such huge challenges, including how it is going to feed the nation with the agricultural space shrinking and the erratic climate conditions, the onus is upon scientists to provide solutions to farmers, and to preserve the sector from a collapse. Institutions such as the Agricultural Research Centre (ARC), which is a premier research institute in the country and the continent, are at the forefront of providing solutions.

The ARC is part of broad international collaborations to model the impact of climate change on Southern African agriculture. Based on the wealth of data gathered from stations around Southern Africa, the model points to a steady increase in temperatures in the regions along with erratic rainfall patterns. The model predicts productivity losses of 10-15 % for commercial maize, and farm revenue losses of 7-35%. However, it is also predicted that adopting proper adaption measures could almost completely prevent these losses.

The South African water supply is already at a disadvantage. Freshwater supply is already overstretched as water levels in the reservoir have decreased dramatically. Increased irrigation of the crops is not a solution either. The Western Cape province is the perfect example of the impact of the nation’s overstretched water supply. The introduction of water sharing in the earlier parts of 2018 proves how overstretched our water supply is. Ground water level is also affected by the increasing mining production and acidic water drainage. These factors affect the agricultural sector.

The impact of the climate variation mostly is based on maize production, however some adaptation strategies such as irrigation require a lot of money and available water. As part of mitigating the impact on the sector, the ARC is advocating for Conservation Agriculture. Conservation Agriculture aims to achieve sustainable and profitable agriculture and is based on optimising yields, profits and livelihoods. The three main principles of Conservation Agriculture are minimal mechanical soil disturbance, diversified cropping, including cover crops and permanent organic soil cover-mulching.

The ARC is encouraging farmers to start looking into climate smart approaches for farming. These climate smart approaches include:

  • Conversation Agriculture to optimise soil and rain fall
  • Infield water harvesting for drop production in marginal areas
  • Irrigation suitability assessment to save scares water resource
  • Biogas production to integrate rural livestock and crop base systems
  • Crop and cultivar development in response to changing conditions.

South African farmers can benefit from smart climate approaches and can save the land for the next generations to cultivate.

Some of the key benefits of Conservation Agriculture:

  • Protect the soil form soil erosion and improve water infiltration
  • Control soil temperature and moisture
  • Suppress wee, increase roots mass
  • Increase content and diversity of bio mass
  • Produce a positive residual fertiliser effect on following cash crops-below ground biomass
  • Increase crop growth and yield
  • Increase in food security and economic viability
  • Reduce machinery wear and tear.

The increase of climatic changes is not being felt now, but it has the power to affect the nation and how we feed our people. There are solutions to every problem that we encounter. The ARC encourages everyone to contribute towards smart agriculture so we can save the land for future generations. The ARC as a premier scientific institution also encourages the indigenous knowledge systems to contribute to safeguard our land.

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