‘Regenerative agriculture can herald a new dawn for Mzansi farmers’

We will lose our agriculture if we fail, argues Dr Naudé Malan, an academic and founder of a Soweto based farmers' lab

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Farmers, are you ready to re-think your place in the food system? It is necessary to give birth to new non-extractive, but empowering retail and distribution models, believes Dr Naudé Malan, a senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg. He is also the founder of iZindaba Zokudla, a Soweto based farmers’ lab.

There are many these days who work for change in the South African food system. We need new farmers in the system, mainly to address historical injustices. We need current farmers to change as well. The challenges of climate change and sustainability are not to be taken lightly and we have to create a meaningful programme of transformation if we want agriculture to benefit us, the people.

Agriculture is a vast field of knowledge, and besides “conventional” agriculture (inspired by the “Green Revolution”) alternatives exist. These are important scientifically as they enable innovation and the generation of new research programmes that may address climate, society and economic issues all at once.

Alternatives in agriculture abound and include organic, regenerative, or even “vertical” approaches. To mix “permaculture”, “biodynamic” and “agro-ecological” is a suggestive metaphor. A social movement may be arising in South Africa around sustainable agricultural development. This movement suggests we can create opportunities for employment, biodiversity and conservation and create enterprise models that build on agriculture’s inherent ecological productivity.

Dr Naude Malan, an academic and founder of a Soweto based farmers’ lab called iZindaba Zokudla. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya / Food For Mzansi

Agricultural science is acknowledging these approaches and systems that aim to create economically productive low-external input farming systems. Far from being backwards, these systems have an inherent tendency to profitability as they build on ecological resilience.

There are a few noteworthy organisations that focus on such broad-based sustainable agricultural practices. AWARD in the Olifants River basin have implemented trench gardening and small-scale technology amongst “communal” farmers to great effect. The social impact of income generation at this scale is significant. Siyavuna in the Natal south coast have organised hundreds of small farmers into a collective organisation. Umsizi Sustainable Social Solutions is basing their broad based livelihoods programme on urban deep trench biological farming.

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At larger scale, regenerative agriculture offers farmers a competitive proposition. The work of Integra and the Non-Governmental Organisation Meat Naturally demonstrates the productivity of alternative rangeland and large crop farming systems. Meat Naturally stimulates entrepreneurship for smaller farmers by offering services like a mobile abattoir and they base this on the conservation of rangeland. This makes a lot of economic sense.

To enable change towards agro-ecology that enhances economic productivity we also need to understand the limits to the “conventional” and liberalised approach to agricultural development. Prices paid to farmers have declined and the gap between producer and consumer process have increased. This has happened all over the world. A liberal approach to the food system will not be able to produce the social, economic and ecological benefits we need to transform agriculture.

The virtues of unspoken markets

The Green Revolution was borne out of very significant scientific advances, but its success was a fortuitous confluence of hybrid seeds, advances in chemistry, mechanisation and business practice.

In the colonies, and South Africa was a true case in point, these technologies converged with race and could be taken to the extreme as land was there for the taking, and states at the time directly subsidised farmers, as they still do in all industrialised countries. We don’t often hear economists espousing the virtues of these kinds of markets.

“Crop farmers can draw on thinking about circular enterprises, and explore new approaches to harvesting biological wastes from produce markets.” – DR NAUDé MALAN

This reorganised food production, diets and cultures and also cities and countryside. It linked farmers in a web of finance, innovation, inputs, and land ownership. This system of increasing production exploits downwards. Farmers, in their dwindling numbers and on larger and larger pieces of land, feed retailers/processors who extract the highest percentage profits from the system. A regenerative, agro-ecological system suggests this can be changed.

Transformation in South Africa is thus doubly disadvantaged as new emerging and transformative farmers and agriculture itself would have to innovate and bypass the easy gains of the Green Revolution, and conform to the demands of ecological sustainability. What is important is that regenerative systems have a strong economic base and their productivity could achieve many of the aims we seek.

These programmes should not eschew Green Revolution technologies, but realise that emerging, and transforming farmers need to primarily build their new production regimes on top of biological productivity. The stability and background productivity that these regimes afford is necessary to enable farmers to use external inputs without creating dependency on them, and will enable experimentation with deepening biological systems. This is the impetus we need to make new emerging farmers succeed.

‘Livestock feeds the soil’

In a larger farm context this would certainly combine livestock, rangeland management with grains and other suitable crops. Livestock feed the soil and this has climate benefits. Crop farmers, inclusive of urban and peri-urban farmers, can draw on thinking about circular enterprises, and explore new approaches to harvesting biological wastes from produce markets, the food industry, municipal and industrial sources.

These can be processed for fertiliser but also animal feed. The design of the farm can also capture resources, especially water, from their natural flows in the ecosystem and make them ecologically productive.

The inherent biological productivity that these approaches represent is what we need to transform agriculture. This will necessarily change the place of the farmer in the food system and herald new non-extractive, but empowering retail and distribution models. These will allow the farmer to build the biological productivity we need in the very near future. Transformation is a serious affair and cannot achieve any aims by focussing on short term political targets. We will lose our agriculture if we fail.

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