Maize vs time: The race to feed SA

South Africa’s planting season for maize, the country’s staple crop, runs from late October to mid-December. By the public holiday on December 16, all the seed should be in the ground. This allows plants to survive what farmers call “the stress month”, January, when extreme heat and low rainfall test the ability of plants to survive, which then grow to full size before the winter frosts start in late April.

In November, the National Crop Estimates Committee said it expected this year’s summer crop to reach 13-million tonnes. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) echoed this optimism, with a crop between 12- and 13-million tonnes predicted. It put this down to “generally beneficial weather conditions” and “favourable forecasts”.

After the devastating drought in 2015 and 2016, when the crop shrank to a quarter of its usual size and white maize cost up to $3 000 a tonne, 2017 had a huge summer crop of nearly 11-million tonnes, with the price dropping to less than $1 000 a tonne. The price drop meant many farmers weren’t able to earn enough to make up for the losses during the drought years. A successive large crop would allow farmers to recover and build up a financial buffer for the next drought.

But then it didn’t rain. Data from the nonprofit Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy show that, by Christmas last year, the eastern Free State had received only 10% of its usual rainfall. Western Mpumalanga and the farming areas of North West were in a similar state.

This belt of green around Mpumalanga gives South Africa its summer maize crop (a much smaller winter crop is grown along the southern coast). White maize is the country’s staple crop and yellow maize is used to feed cattle, poultry and other livestock.

The price of maize increased by a third in November, as buyers predicted a shortage.

Along this green belt, maize is irrigated from the Vaal River system. Agriculture uses about 60% of its water. But you can’t plant maize if the soil is too dry and too hot. In its advice to farmers, the Agricultural Research Council says that when the average temperature is above the 24°C to 30°C window for successive days, maize dries up and shrivels before it sprouts.

In December and January, successive heat waves kept average temperatures above the 30°C mark for up to a week at a time. Grain SA says, by the end of December, only 20% of the area set aside for maize had been planted.

Heavy rain in late December and in parts of January gave farmers a tiny window in which the soil was damp and cool enough to plant. Grain SA now estimates that two-thirds to three-quarters of the maize area have been planted.

This seems like good news. The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries says the country needs slightly less than 11-million tonnes of maize to be self-sufficient. The area planted could grow enough maize to reach this target (and there are three million tonnes left over from last year’s harvest).

But the crop isn’t guaranteed. January is known as the stress month for good reason and temperatures on the Highveld in February are unrelenting. Global warming means that South Africa is already 2°C hotter on average than it was a century ago, and the number of hotter-than-average days have been increasing.

This means young maize is trying to grow while being scorched by the sun. It is also racing against time; maize needs 100 days to grow to full size. The last few days are critical because this is when the plant dries out. But 100 days takes the crop dangerously close to autumn, sudden temperature drops and frost. This kills maize.

Last year, the rains came similarly late in December. Farmers managed to plant their entire crop in just a week. And that crop grew to size before it had to face freezing frost. But this year is different because temperatures are staying higher for longer and putting unrelenting pressure on the crop.

If the harvest is short, South Africa will have to import. The FAO says the global grain harvest this year will be the lowest in five years, as a result of a drop in production in the Ukraine and the United States, two of the five biggest producers in the world. That will make grain all the more expensive, driving up the price of bread and maize in South Africa.

And all this is before an El Niño reaches full strength. The weather phenomenon, when large parts of the Pacific Ocean get rapidly hotter, tends to create drought in the southern hemisphere.

It’s the reason the 2015 and 2016 drought was so severe and the maize crop yield was so low.

Current predictions are that it will not have an effect on this season, but rather on the next crop. So farmers will have no respite.

There are no final numbers for the area of maize planted; that data will be released by the National Crop Estimates Committee next week. At this point, no extra maize can be planted.

The country will have to hope the maize crop survives the intense heat and grows to full size before the autumn frost arrives.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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