Next-gen focus on traditional farming

Crop diversificiation, and greater emphasis on research and development of more effective and resilient crops and production methodologies will be important in improving food security in the years to come, says Dr Stephen Greenberg, a researcher with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) and Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) at the University of the Western Cape.

Noting that summer rainfall regions across sub-Saharan Africa have been hard hit by drought in the past two harvest seasons, Greenberg points out that dry seasons are normal for the region. “The problem is, we have not adapted to the fact that droughts and climate change are a reality, and the predictions are that the dry spells will increase in future.”

In South Africa, the impact of drought is mitigated by insurance and food imports — options not always easily available elsewhere across sub-Saharan Africa. “For much of the region, the answer becomes food aid. But this is just a short-term solution. The reality is that we have to change the way we farm. We have to move away from a maize monoculture, introducing more crop diversity, looking at integrating indigenous farming methods and crops in a scientific way, and researching methods to improve productivity and drought resistance,” he says.

He believes farmers need to look to crops that require less irrigation and less synthetic fertiliser, and trial methods of ensuring that the soil retains water, such as mulching and cover crops. “We need to think about the science of production, consider smaller-scale farming across more diverse units and look to integrate animals into the crop farming system. Improving soil fertility using agro-ecological means is the basis for a sustainable production system that can respond both to food needs in localised production systems and to climate change.”

In an increasingly urbanised Africa, Greenberg believes small intensive horticulture in urban areas can contribute to the food security of urban populations. “If small-scale urban fruit, vegetable and poultry farming was introduced on a mass scale, it could meet a lot of the food needs of urban populations for these categories of food,” he says.

“What we need to do in the region is to transition away from farm input subsidy programmes that subsidise commercial maize and synthetic fertiliser inputs and primarily benefit large corporates and multinationals,” he says. Greenberg says that by allocating a portion of these subsidies to develop programmes around diversified agriculture, agro-ecological experimentation with farmers and trials of various methodologies, governments would support more sustainable farming and food security into the future. “Proper resources should be allocated to [research and development] into alternative methodologies that make agriculture more productive and resilient to future conditions. Government could also support efforts to resuscitate some of the traditional indigenous crops that have fallen by the wayside and might contribute to a diversified mix.”

Inconsistent policy

Policy can be a double-edged sword in efforts to empower Africa’s small-scale farmers to increase productivity and help meet the food needs of the continent.

Professor Ben Cousins, SARChI Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, says various policies — from subsidies for large commercial growers through to forced benefit sharing with smaller farmers and local communities — have had mixed success.

“Africa’s food systems have been struggling to feed the continent for decades, particularly since structural adjustment policies came into effect in late 70s and early 80s. Free-market policies have also led to declines in investment and support for small-scale farming, which results in an enlarged dependence on imports,” he says. “There is a problem of inconsistent policymaking. This is partly why African governments are welcoming large-scale investment from external organisations to improve productivity and food production. The reason they are encouraging it is because they themselves have neglected support for small-scale farming.”

But African governments need to push to ensure that large commercial investors pass on benefits to small-scale farmers, he says.

“The onus should be on governments to fight for benefits, and they often need to be pushed to do that by communities and NGOs,” he says. “Depending on the degree of local pushback and how much the state is willing support this, investors are being forced to spread the benefits.”

These shared benefits could see small farmers engaged in contract farming with major commercial entities, increasing their food security, and some may gain more cash in pocket. Others may secure employment and use their wage income to purchase food.

Western Cape responds to climate change

The SmartAgri plan is a comprehensive climate change response plan to combat the impact of extreme weather events on the Western Cape’s increasingly vulnerable agriculture sector. It is the result of two years of extensive collaboration and engagement between the Western Cape Government, specifically the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs and the Department of Development Planning, the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI), and a wide range of stakeholders in the private sector.

This project recently reached the final milestone of its three-phase work plan and was unveiled by Minister of Economic Opportunities Alan Winde and Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning Anton Bredell.

Bredell said that extreme weather events are threatening food security and economic growth. “We have many vulnerable communities facing extreme levels of poverty, economic, health and housing challenges that are being compounded by climate change. If not addressed swiftly and rigorously, climate change and its effects will impact basic things like food and water, and networks that our economic activities depend upon. Worst of all is the fact that the most vulnerable among us will be the hardest hit.”

Bredell stated that the good news is that matters can be addressed and turned into opportunities, but only if governments are well prepared with science based decision-making support.

The project’s final assessment showed that, if not addressed, climate change will have negative impacts on the region, such as higher minimum and maximum temperatures, increases in annual temperatures of up to to three degrees, more hot days and fewer cold days, and reduced annual rainfall, but a possibility of increased rainfall along the south coast.

The SmartAgri team categorised the different regions of the province’s agriculture sector into 23 “agro-climactic zones”. The final report offers tailored climate change response plans for each of these regions. The plan stipulates the nature of that specific region’s agri-enterprises and the climate challenges that are likely to be experienced in each area. Using scenario planning, SmartAgri predicts detailed outcomes for a series of possible situations, which include droughts, heat waves and cold spells.

The plan explores two scenarios, namely the low road, where climate change mitigation plans are not co-ordinated, and the high road, where risks and opportunities are identified and action plans implemented.


The SmartAgri plan puts forward the following six priorities to be driven by government and industry:

  • Conservation agriculture: This approach includes minimum tillage, year-round soil cover and crop rotation.
  • Restoring degraded landscapes: Factors such as overgrazing of rangelands and the spread of alien plants have led to degradation of indigenous fynbos, succulent Karoo and grassland areas. The benefits of this action include improved soil conservation.
  • Improved catchment management for water security and job creation: One strategy here is the removal of invasive alien plants, which reduces the flow of water and impacts water purification.
  • Energy efficiency: This step was prioritised across the province and particularly for regions with substantial irrigation farming and processing and cooling of fresh produce. It is also relevant to export-orientated, fruit and wine industries and intensive livestock industries, such as dairy. Under this step, clean forms of energy are promoted through the use of case studies as success stories.
  • “Climate-proofing” the Western Cape’s agri-processing sector: This priority project includes prioritising climate-resilient crops and livestock.
  • Integrated knowledge system for climate smart practices: This seeks to ensure SmartAgri extension officers become the first port of call for farmers requiring information on smart agriculture practices.
  • World Food Day

    On October 16 1945, 42 countries assembled in Canada to create the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The goal was to free humanity from hunger and malnutrition, and to effectively manage the global food system. World Food Day 2016 marked the 71st anniversary of the Organisation’s founding.
    Every year, over 150 countries organise events to promote worldwide awareness of hunger, food security and nutritious diets.
    The theme for this year is: “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too”.
    The organisation emphasises that every human being has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and the right to adequate, nutritious food. But everyone also has a role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change.
    Individuals should also take action by changing simple day-to-day decisions, such as wasting less food, saving water, keeping soils and water clean, keeping fish populations afloat, buying organic food, using solar panels and recycling. — Chantelle Gradidge

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