Agriculture finds itself on both ends of a double-edged sword: being both a contributor to climate change and the victim of some of the worst effects it will have on our society. Many of the measures that farmers can take to prepare themselves for shifting weather patterns will, however, also help offset the pressure of agriculture on the environment.
The United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a report called “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis”. This report is far from a fun read, not just because it is 1 300 pages long, but also because of its dire predictions for the future.
The report is a detailed assessment of the collective knowledge of world-renowned climate experts and decades worth of data and research. By using models to predict future shifts, it can help us understand how we will be impacted by climate change still to come. We have already started to see the effects of climate change on our agricultural sector, with unpredictable weather patterns, increased droughts and higher temperatures causing water shortages and crop failures.
What future impacts are expected for South Africa in the years and decades to come, how will it affect our agricultural sector and what can we do to prepare?
Climate change predictions for the future
According to Roland Hunter, technical project manager at the African Climate Development Initiative, climate change will cause temperatures to increase globally. South Africa, however, will be impacted disproportionately more than other countries across the globe.
“Southern Africa is likely to heat up at a relatively greater proportional rate than other regions,” says Hunter. “How hot that is going to be depends on the political decisions that we make or don’t make in the coming decades.”
Professor Stephanie Midgley, a researcher and project manager in agriculture, food security and climate change, explains that the effects of climate change in South Africa will follow different gradients. While our general climate will be warmer by two degrees, this will vary over the country. Temperature projections for the coastal areas are a rise by about one or one and a half degrees Celsius, whereas our inland areas could increase by an average of three or four degrees.
Midgley says these levels of impact will possibly be reached by mid-century (2050) and that we will definitely reach these levels by the 2080s unless we make radical emission reductions.
A warmer, dryer future
We know that our climate will get hotter, but the change to our rainfall is much harder to predict. Local and IPCC models show that the western part of South Africa, our winter rainfall area, will get drier. Some parts in the southern cape and summer rainfall areas might get wetter.
“What is likely to happen is that rainfall will become more variable,” Hunter says. “Well-established rainfall patterns will be disrupted.”
This means that areas and the timing of rainfall will shift. This will affect farmers’ decision-making around how to time the planting of their crops.
“We’re starting to see that well-established crop patterns and seed varieties are no longer suited to conditions where they might have flourished 20 years ago,” Hunter says.
The problem with these expected changes in rainfall is not only that farmers will find it more difficult to plan when to plant crops, but it can also have knock-on effects. When it rains heavily on an area that has been dry for a long time, the area is more likely to flood and it can also cause erosion and the loss of topsoil.
The threat of droughts
“The most vulnerable part of farming is the rain-fed crops, and then specifically the winter grains in the western part of the country – the Swartland and the Overberg,” says Midgley.
Those areas are where we produce wheat, barley, oats and canola – all rain-fed crops that depend entirely on the rainfall season. As we go through more years of dry spells, grain cropping will be increasingly under pressure.
Midgley says these regions are of particular concern, especially northwards in the Swartland where very harsh drying and heating projections are being modelled.
Irrigated agriculture is also vulnerable when multi-year droughts occur.
“If the dams have been full, they can probably last us for two seasons,” says Midgley. “But once we go to three or four years it becomes problematic.”
In a scenario where we have less stored water, water may become more expensive and will be rationed. This will thrust more costs onto farmers and increase the competition for resources. A good example of this is the Cape Town drought we experienced at its peak in 2017. After three years of low rainfall during the rainy season, irrigated agriculture had to cut their irrigation by 60% due to the water shortages.
Maize and grasslands to contract
Some specific predictions are that our areas available for maize and grasslands will get smaller.
According to Midgley, climate models predict that the warmer parts of South Africa that are already marginal for maize production will become unviable for commercial maize production.
This is because maize does not do well in areas with varied water ability. Any dry spell or drought will result in poor or zero production.
Another prediction for Mzansi is that our arid ecosystems, such as the Namib and the Karoo, are likely to expand. And ecosystems such as grasslands and fynbos might shrink.
Grasslands are an important ecosystem for smallholders and livestock farmers. In a scenario where our grasslands shrink under the impacts of climate change, increased heat and water stress won’t be the only issue, says Hunter. These impacts will also put health stresses on our livestock, influencing their ability to produce products such as milk or to accumulate the weight of a healthy animal.
So, what can we do?
The future might sound dire, but we are an adaptable people. No problem has ever kept us down for long, partly due to our diversity – not just of our people but also of our climate.
South Africa’s very diverse climate will see every region experience different effects. This means that there is no magic bullet; no one-size-fits-all strategy to prepare our farmers for the effects of climate change.
There are, however, ways to build resilience in our agriculture sector; adaptive strategies to be implemented at a national level and steps that farmers can take to prepare for coming changes.
At a high level, Hunter says that we should build an adaptation plan that is designed with the farmer in mind and with farmers’ participation. On a lower level, farmers will need to find techniques, hacks and technologies that work in their own context.
Collaboration is key
Hunter’s most important recommendation is that farmers should start forming cooperatives and collaborate with neighbours.
“For farmers to be able to adapt, the most effective thing to do will be to organise themselves, to think cooperatively and to collaborate to find solutions that work in their region,” Hunter says.
In this way resources can be shared and knowledge can be built faster. This is especially important if there is going to be competition over resources.
By splitting risk over multiple crop types, farmers can offset their risk of outright crop failure and not receiving any yield to cover their costs.
“Farmers should split their risk and diversify,” says Hunter, “what they do, what they grow and how they generate income from their farms.”
Commercial farming estates are already diversifying into ecotourism, hospitality, fine dining and value addition to their products. Olive farms produce olive oil and offer tastings, and wine farms offer wine tastings and pairings. All of these diversify their sources of revenue, although you need a source of capital to start these ventures.
Another thing Hunter mentions is to look for opportunities to create higher value from a smaller amount of produce. By focusing on limited production of a high-value niche product, or by adding value and processing your product yourself, farmers can make more profit than by simply selling raw products.
Collaboration can also play a key role here. For example, in a community where many women have small backyard tomato gardens, none would have enough yield to make a profitable tomato canning operation. By processing the tomatoes before selling them, one can add value if you have enough produce to make it feasible. If all the women worked as a collective, they could add their tomatoes together to process and sell them for more profit.
Irrigation systems can be changed to something more efficient, such as micro-irrigation or drip irrigation. But this isn’t an option for all farming situations. Other options are preventing water loss through smart management decisions and investing in crops that are genetically adapted to lower water needs.
Artificial intelligence can also be used to track exactly when and how much water is needed in order to prevent unnecessary water usage.
Protect our soil
We send much of our valuable topsoil down the drain by allowing it to be washed away.
Hunter quotes a joke from a soil scientist, “South Africa’s top three exports by value is gold, sugar cane and topsoil.”
Topsoil contains natural organic matter from leaves, grasses, weeds and other organic matter that is necessary to sustain crops. It is also an invaluable carbon sink, drawing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in our agricultural soils.
“Any measure that maintains our topsoil and preserves it will help stave off the collapse of agriculture systems,” Hunter says.
Plan(t) for the future
Midgley insists that it is important for farmers to start planting for the future. This includes farming with crops that are suited to your area and the stresses that are present there. All our regional farming systems are already adapted to their areas: from really arid conditions to the sub-tropical conditions with very high rainfall.
Planting for the future also means selecting cultivars and varieties that are heat-adapted and don’t need as much water.
“Making the right choices now is going to be really important,” she says.
The same goes for livestock farming, in selecting breeds that are genetically selected to be more resilient or suited to difficult conditions.
Don’t give up hope
Finally, because of our diverse climate and soil and development of new, hardier crop varieties, we will be able to adapt. Nationally we are not going into a situation of increased food insecurity, says Midgely. With training, education and technology we will be able to produce enough food and still remain a strong export country.
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