7 impacts of climate change on South African agriculture

The National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy published by the department of environmental affairs predicts that South Africa will experience many heatwaves in the future.

Prolonged droughts, warmer atmosphere, extreme weather, and the heating of oceans are all signs of the worsening effects of climate change. But what does all of this mean for agriculture?

Climate change is a devastating global crisis, with significant and detrimental effects already impacting on farmers and farming communities right here in Mzansi, say climatologists and economists.

The vibrant agricultural sector is one of the most climate-sensitive worldwide and industry professionals agree that global warming is not simply an academic concept, but a lived experience.

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Prof. Mulala Simatele, a member of the Global Change Institute (GCI) and environmental scientist at Wits university. Photo: Supplied

Prof. Mulala Simatele, a member of the Global Change Institute and environmental scientist at Wits University, states that South Africa is ranked as the 31st driest country in the world. This means that the country does not have enough water for agricultural purposes.

“What deceives us in South Africa is that we think that beautiful green landscapes mean that we’ve had good rainfall. But one of the challenges that the country has to deal with is what we call “the green drought”, which means that the rain received is only enough to help weeds grow,” he explains.

Increase in heatwaves predicted

South Africa has already seen severe warming due to climate change, according to the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy published by the department of environmental affairs.

The report states, “There is evidence that extreme weather events in South Africa are increasing, with heatwave conditions found to be more likely, dry spell durations lengthening slightly, and rainfall intensity increasing.”

Records show that the past five years have been the hottest years on record. According to non-profit news organisation Climate Central, the top ten warmest years on record globally were: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2010, 2009 and 2005.

‘Smallholders are likely to be hit the hardest by climate change.’

Furthermore, an increase in the number of heatwaves and very hot days has been predicted by the department of environmental affairs.

According to Professor Simatele, South Africa continues to rely on coal-powered electricity, which is spewing huge volumes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. This, he explains, has resulted in the country being considered as one of the major contributors to the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa is the world’s 13th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses.

Mzansi’s agricultural system, especially commercial farming, still makes use of chemical fertilisers during the cultivation of large farming zones. “This then releases carbon, which is trapped in the soil, back into the atmosphere,” Simatele explains.

“We need to find a way of transitioning from fossil powered energy to renewable systems, as well as a food production system which involves smart agriculture,” he recommends.

Smaller farmers more at risk 

According to Tshepo Morokong, a senior agricultural economist at the Western Cape department of agriculture, smallholders are likely to be hit the hardest by climate change.

He says the fact that most of these farmers use communal land makes them individually helpless to take large scale action to mitigate the risks of climate change.

“They use limited land and they are not able to produce high volumes and this results in them not being able to benefit from large-scale production. They also have no access to insurance and cannot afford some of the required mitigating technologies,” says Morokong.

The following are highlighted as the main effects that climate change is expected to have on agriculture:

1. Unpredictable weather patterns

Because of the unpredictability in weather conditions, production on farms will be negatively impacted. The shifts in rainfall distribution can either cause drought or it can cause excessive floods resulting in crop damage.

2. Changes in the agricultural economy

From an economic perspective, securing markets in an environment beset by climate change can prove to be difficult. The prices for commodities can become very unpredictable and volatile because it is no longer easy for farmers to commit to certain or previous volumes of production.

3. Forced technological adaptation

Climate change is forcing farmers to embrace and introduce new technology in farming practices to increase efficiency levels. For example, because of the environmental changes and the impacts thereof on farm life, technology can help farmers to better manage their water usage during severe drought periods.

4. Infrastructure changes on the farm

Farmers are being forced to make changes to the infrastructure on their farms. For instance, they may now have to start building additional water reservoirs on their farms to increase contingency plans in the event of drought disasters.

5. Imports of agricultural equipment, technology and machinery

The standard operating inputs that are used by South African farmers have mostly been imported from other countries. This on its own is already a costly exercise. Changes in climate can change the types of input and machinery used locally, which could have significant cost impacts for farmers.

6. Groundwater and surface water availability

Climate change has already had effects on surface and groundwater availability. Dry episodes on land have a significant impact on agriculture – when temperatures rise, a lot of soil moisture is lost. That soil moisture would have supported crops during periods of little or no rainfall.

7. Soil fertility

Farmers are very dependent on soil moisture and soil fertility. Climate change, however, causes the soil to become dryer. When this happens the fertility of the soil is jeopardized, resulting in farmers having to make use of additional fertilisers to ensure that their crops continue growing.

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