Subsistence farmers in a hot spot

It's predicted that human-driven shifts in climate patterns will wipe out farmers who cannot adapt to change. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

It's predicted that human-driven shifts in climate patterns will wipe out farmers who cannot adapt to change. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Climate change propelled the agricultural revolution 12 000 years ago. Now human-driven climate change is threatening agriculture. In South Africa an already brittle sector is going to have additional stresses put on it as temperatures rise. Research overwhelmingly points to an environment in which these stresses wipe out small-scale and self-sufficient farming. 

The first agricultural revolution came as ice caps retreated and carbon levels in the atmosphere increased. Populations exploded and economies grew at an unsustainable pace. Now this civilisation is emitting so much carbon dioxide that it is fundamentally altering the environment. 

“Agriculture is particularly vulnerable because it is highly dependent on climate variables,” said Professor Martine Visser of the African Climate and Development Initiative. South Africa is already semiarid, so the extra change would be a multiplier for problems. “The more extreme weather conditions are expected to have a significant effect on all sectors of the economy.”

Agriculture contributes 12% to South Africa’s gross domestic product, according to the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

In research released last year, the Institute for Race Relations said a fifth of farms supply 80% of the food used in the formal retail chain. A further 220 000 emerging, and two million subsistence, farmers contributed about 5% to the national commercial food crop, it said.

‘Less adapted’
The most affected will be farmers who have no fallback, said Visser. “Compared to commercial agriculture, smallholder farms are less adapted to climate change.”

They did not have access to credit and insurance, which gave other farmers a hedge against climate risk, she said. “The poor typically have limited opportunities and, consequently, are disproportionated affected by the negative impacts of climate change.”

Local government would also be put under severe stress, Visser said.

“The burden on municipalities will grow because of the expected increases in natural disasters, water scarcity, disease, reduced agricultural production and food security.”

Municipalities might be unable to adapt to the change because they already had weak governance structures and low income levels, according to Visser.

Long-term scenarios
In its long-term adaptation scenarios, the department of environmental affairs said rainfall would be the single biggest issue as the climate changed. Rainfall patterns had already shifted in the past decade because the country is a degree warmer than a century ago, it said. “Rainfall is the most important factor in determining potential agricultural activities and sustainability across the country.”

The worst-hit would be staple crops that are not irrigated. Maize, sorghum, wheat, cotton, sugar cane and lucerne rely on predictable rainfall to come to harvest. Late rains this year meant a 40% reduction in the national maize crop.

Calculations by the agriculture and environment departments predict up to a 25% decrease in yields from these crops. World Bank research for Southern Africa predicts a 40% decrease in these crops.

Citrus plantations – which employ large numbers of people in marginal land areas – rely on huge amounts of water for irrigation and would also be in trouble.

The only crop that would substantially benefit would be sorghum, which is drought-resistant. As the territory for other crops shrunk, it would find more areas to grow, the research showed. 

Political decisions
The severity of the effect of climate change depends on political decisions taken and implemented at national and international levels.

Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are more than 400 parts per million (ppm), compared with 250ppm before the Industrial Revolution. That change has warmed the world by on average 0.8°C. The current growth in carbon emissions will see levels hit 550ppm by the middle of this century – ensuring average warming of up to 6°C. International climate negotiations are trying to keep levels below 450ppm so that average temperature increases are below 2°C.

International funds

There are international funds that are supposed to help farmers in this position. 

The 2009 Copenhagen climate conference established the Green Climate Fund. Developed countries are supposed to fill this with $100-billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries lower their emissions and adapt to climate change. But so far only a fraction has been raised. 

German villagers own the energy – we should too

The strong wind whips the yellow wheat stalks in circles. But the only noise is the steady whoosh of the 90m-tall wind turbine that rises into the sky. Wind – flowing off the flat plains of central Germany – hits the curved blades at five metres a second.

In its 6 000 hours of operation, this single turbine has generated 6 700 megawatt-hours of electricity. One percent of this goes along a new electricity grid to the farming village of Feldheim. The rest flows into the national grid.

Another 46 wind turbines create a total of 91MW of capacity in the fields around the village. Sited in the former East Germany, the village was faced with a collapsing economy in 2004. Its young people had moved to nearby Berlin. The market for crops and milk had become unsustainable. A quarter of farmers were on the verge of closing down their operations. 

At the time, Germany’s renewable energy revolution was kicking off. Anyone who generated energy from a renewable source would be given a guaranteed price (through a feed-in tariff) for 20 years for selling to the national grid. More than a million homes now supply the grid. The results have been so good that, on some days this year, half of the power on the grid has come from renewable sources.

The same is possible in South Africa. A similar tariff was created by the energy department after the 2009 energy crisis. The department opened a series of bidding windows for independent renewable energy companies to provide electricity. To date 5 000MW of capacity has been allocated – as much as the capacity provided by Medupi. Another 6 000MW is planned. But, unlike the Eskom plants, these projects are funded by private capital and come online in two years, in the hands of large corporations. Private households are unable to sell power back to the grid for a profit. In places such as Germany, this became possible because the national grid is owned by different companies – and not by the same company that generates the energy, as is the case with Eskom. The Independent System and Market Operator Bill has been tabled to try to break this monopoly, but it has not been passed. 

The neat cobbled walkways of Feldheim share space with 3m-tall pylons, installed by the community. These form a separate renewable grid for the village’s 35 homes. Electric battery units off the street, in green fields, provide charging points for electric vehicles. Under-neath the three main tarred streets, a network of pipes takes hot water to houses, heating them when it is cold. In winter, temperatures drop to -12°C.

To build this grid, which was closed to outsiders, Feldheim community members bought into the scheme with R40 000. This gives them heat and electricity connections. It also means people get electricity at half the national price – they do not pay the renewable levy and other taxes paid by the rest of the country. Elsewhere people pay a premium to develop renewable energy.

The energy for heating comes from a biogas plant in the small industrial part of the town, next to fields of starkly black and white cows. The plant uses cow and pig manure to create energy. A wood chip plant, which burns waste chips from nearby forestry activities, helps the grid when temperatures drop below zero. This has given the farmers more markets for their goods, and none have had to close. Nothing is wasted in the village; it is carbon neutral.

This scenario could be possible in South Africa. The potential for wind and solar energy is greater than in most other countries. Communities could be supplied off the grid. Instead, the government is sticking to centralised power.

Sipho Kings’s trip to cover the Petersberg Climate Dialogue was paid for by the German foreign office.

Sipho Kings


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