Growing wealth

2008-07-31 00:00

THE speakers at the Omnia Farmers’ Day that was held recently at the Royal Agricultural Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg, offered far more than a discussion on the technical aspects of no-till farming. President of the American Confederation of Organisations for Sustainable Agriculture Roberto Peiretti gave some interesting facts about the need for changes in our agriculture if we are to feed the world and equally fascinating were the points raised by the political and trend economist J. P. Landman on the “post-Mbeki era”.

Peiretti emphasised that we have a limited area on this Earth from which we have to produce enough to survive. Conventional plough-based agriculture has been used for thousands of years and this ongoing ploughing of the soil has resulted in huge erosion. “There has to be a new system of soil preparation” he said.

For 10 000 years agricultural production has kept up with the demand for food. In the fifties there were three billion people on Earth with 800 million starving and now there are six billion still with 800 million starving, In a way, I suppose this is some form of achievement because in the fifties 24% of people were starving and now it is only 12%.

Peiretti stated that soil tillage is the number one factor responsible for soil degradation. I liked that because it means that we should not blame cattle for soil degradation but the irresponsible use of the plough. A great point for us cattlemen.

He said we have to maintain carbon in the soil. And I am sure that was not to appease those who believe in carbon emissions creating global warming but because our soils need as much carbon as possible to be healthy and produce abundant crops.

The demand for biofuels — or fuels produced from crops — is increasing rapidly. In the United States 35% of its maize crop is going into ethanol. Meanwhile global food demand is likely to double in the next 20 to 30 years. Therefore, we have to increase agricultural production and at the same time conserve the soil. It must be appreciated that only 10% of our food comes from the oceans and the other 90% has to be produced on the land.

Increased food production can be achieved through expanding the production area but this will only account for 20% of our needs and the rest will have to come from improved productivity. Peiretti says that we have to “look to science and not ideologies” to achieve this. The new scientific farming model will include no-till farming.

My friend and colleague at The Witness, Derek Alberts, has already reported on J. P. Landman’s presentation (The Witness, July 27) but I believe it is worth expanding a bit further on this talk. Landman referred to a situation of huge global turbulence and in South Africa this is food, fuel and Eskom. No wonder Alberts wrote more in his article about the style of this presentation rather than the content.

Landman explained that the success of South Africa will depend on two things. The country must get richer and at the same time develop a huge quantity of “social capital”. Getting richer means that the whole of society must get wealthier. What social capital did we have in the past?

From 1980 to 1993 we had an annual economic growth rate of 0,7%. Under Mandela this growth was 2,5%, under Mbeki (first term) three percent, from 2004 to 2007 it was five percent and in 2008 will be around three percent. After Mbeki it may only be three percent but that is still far better than 0,7%. Landman emphasises that our present economic growth is greater than our population growth.

What about this thing called “social capital”? Landman defines it as “having a common good, cohesion, serving society, trust, values and reciprocity.” His test for the social capital is “when you walk in town how many of the people around you do you trust?” But he believes the basis of social capital is really reciprocity.

He likes to refer to the employment rate rather than the unemployment rate. In 1995, 39% of working-age people were employed in South Africa and in 2007, 66% were employed. This compares with figures from India of 41%, Brazil of 64%, Turkey 43% and Kenya 37%. So we seem to be doing pretty well in South Africa.

Our economic growth is doing well but Landman re-emphasised that we will have to recreate social capital if we want to avoid reaching the “tipping point” in the post-Mbeki era.

It is obviously very difficult for farmers to accept fully such positive information as Landman gives when their farming livelihoods appear to be in constant jeopardy.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be contacted at 033 330 4817, 082 880 9002 or e-mail agpaterson@satweb.co.za

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