As Agricultural activities intensifies to provide sufficient food for a growing population in south Africa climate change and its manifestations, which includes extreme weather events, have been featured as prominent risks on the radar of investors, banks and commercial farmers bearing in mind that South Africa has a market-oriented agricultural economy that is highly diversified and includes the production of all the major grains (except rice), oilseeds, deciduous and subtropical fruits, sugar, citrus, wine and most vegetables.
In Illustration, the World Economic Forum ranks environmental risks among the top five global risks in its ‘2020 Global Risk Report’.
The 2020 Global risk report discusses the prominence of extreme weather, failure to adapt to climate change, environmental damage caused by humans, major biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and major natural disasters.
Financial institution Nedbank believes that, while agriculture is a key contributor to environmental impacts, it finds itself on the receiving end of these devastating effects. The bank states that, for example, climate change is making farming far less predictable and more challenging than ever before.
Agricultural intensification has had a negative effect on soil, water and biodiversity, resulting in declining crop yields and quality and, ultimately, increased adverse effects of climate change.
In response to the above Nedbank recommends that the agriculture industry focuses on sustainable production, using farming practices that consider ecological cycles and are sensitive to microorganisms and the environment.
Climate change is also undeniably changing the environmental, social and economic conditions affecting agriculture. According to World Bank’s estimates, carbon dioxide equivalent emissions are now 60% higher than they were in 1990 and are growing at about 2.5% a year.
Without intervention, the surge is presumed to continue driven primarily by increasing populations and economic growth. If the world continues on this trajectory, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, global mean surface temperatures will likely increase by 4.8 ºC in 2100, compared with preindustrial levels.
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) the climate change poses a significant threat to South Africa’s water resources, food security, health, infrastructure, ecosystem services and biodiversity.
Agriculture in South Africa faces a variety of risks associated with climate change, such as changes in rainfall patterns, increased evaporation rates, higher temperatures, more pests and diseases, changes in diseases and pest distribution ranges, reduced yields and a spatial shift in optimum growing regions.
The emergence of such risks calls for urgent, ambitious action to ensure the resilience of the local agriculture sector by adapting to climate change impacts.
Case in Point
According to the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), in 2007, the maize plant required an average of 450 mm to 600 mm of rainfall per season and an average daily temperature of 19 ºC.
If temperatures consistently rise above 32 ºC in maize-growing regions, this can have a detrimental effect on production.
Maize is South Africa’s largest export crop, and it is therefore worth noting how changes in temperature and precipitation might affect yields.
The general consensus is that South Africa will transition to a drier and hotter climate, with longer dry spells, increased rainfall variability and a reduction in mean annual rainfall, as well as more severe flooding and negative effects on water quality, owing to higher temperatures.
The effects of climate change are already evident in South Africa and the wider sub-Saharan Africa region, manifesting in more droughts and more intense, but less frequent, rainfall.
These weather changes impact on agricultural output and the timing of harvest seasons, thus wreaking havoc on food security and logistical planning.
Using better seed varieties is key to ensuring crops cope better with severe weather and disease or insect outbreaks.
Using stronger seed cultivars also leads to savings in space, since higher yields can be achieved on smaller pieces of land, which aligns with the environmental sustainability agenda.
While South Africa’s agriculture sector already uses technology for sustainability, with the deployment of precision farming techniques having improved resource efficiency and productivity, experts warns that there is an opportunity to use genetically modified organism technology to save space and ensure higher yields.
Microsoft South Africa (Microsoft SA) and nonprofit think-tank Research Information and Communication Technology Africa state in a research report published in June last year that the current policy framework in South Africa needs to be updated so that it is more appropriate for the rapid developments in the agricultural technology sector.
“Agricultural policy in South Africa has mostly overlooked the digitalization of the sector, failing to provide the appropriate incentives and safeguards for its development, which, in turn, has been primarily driven by the private sector,” states Microsoft SA.
Policy initiatives that aim to harness the benefits of technology in agriculture include the Information and Communications Technology Research, Development and Innovation Roadmap, which promotes the role of information and communication technology in the sector to improve agricultural production and support emerging farmers, while the 2017 National e-Strategy outlines a nine-point sectoral intervention plan.
The plan includes the revitalization of the agriculture sector through the deployment of so-called smart farming initiatives throughout the agriculture value chain, with an emphasis on emerging smallholder farmers.
The WWF states that some of South Africa’s policies largely ignore the research on technological options for climate change adaptation, breeding climate-resilient crops and livestock varieties.
Tech for Change
According to Asif Valley of Microsoft SA national technology, technology can assist farmers in alleviating the challenges brought on by climate change. To this end, the company offers platform-as-a-service Azure FarmBeats, which combines artificial intelligence (AI) and farmers’ own in-depth knowledge of their farms to help increase productivity.
Azure FarmBeats aggregates agricultural data from different sources and provides actionable insights that take the guesswork out of planting to derive the highest possible yields, reduce costs and ensure the efficient use of natural resources.
Other sensor solutions are also gaining traction as farmers realize the importance of using resources efficiently and becoming climate change resilient.