Agriculture vital to social, economic stability - WWF

2015-04-09 17:23

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Johannesburg - Farmers were meeting the challenge of producing enough food for the country, although the agricultural sector faced a number of problems in the coming years, according to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report released on Thursday.

According to the WWF's 2015 Reconnecting South Africa's Food Systems to its Ecosystems report, the steady rise in food prices which are often associated with unrest in many countries, showed how important the agricultural sector was to social and economic stability.

"Yet South Africa's farmers are meeting the challenge of keeping enough calories on the country's national plate," the report stated.

"The country is self-sufficient in virtually all major agricultural products and produces more than half of southern Africa's maize needs. It exports wine, sugar, fruit, wool, forestry products and more to the world.

"At the same time, farmers are under pressure to intensify their agricultural outputs to meet increasing food demands from a population that has grown by 25% between 2000 and 2013."

According to the report, only 1% of South Africa had the right climate and soil combinations for rain-fed crops, and only three percent of the country had "truly fertile" soil.

"Rising wealth, urbanisation and a fast-growing middle class means South Africans are eating more processed and high-protein foods, especially meat and dairy products. These foods are more land- and water-intensive than fruit, vegetable and grain crops, and further stress existing resources," the report said.

"Agriculture faces the challenges of a shifting land reform policy in a country where two ‘economies’ operate side by side: Large commercial farmers who produce most of South Africa’s food, and subsistence farmers who struggle to survive and often abandon their farms for life in the city."

Food-water-energy nexus

There was also the interplay of the food-water-energy nexus, where a change in one system has dramatic repercussions for the others.

Only 13% of the land was good for cultivation, with most of the land surface (69%) only good for grazing, which made livestock farming the largest agricultural sector.

Agriculture had the potential to create a significant number of jobs for the country’s largely unskilled workforce, and shrink the divide between rich and poor.

"The sector needs to be restructured in a way that allows for the redistribution of land and creates some fairness in the access to, and ownership of, resources," the report stated.

"This needs to be done in a way that does not erode the food outputs of the country’s farmers."

Three percent of South Africa's farmers, all commercial, produced 95% of the country’s formal-sector food.

"If any of this land falls out of large-scale production, this could have a serious impact on the country’s food security."

According to the report, uncertainty around land reform policy was threatening to further destabilise the farming sector, with the proposed land reform bill of 2015 calling for a possible ceiling on the size of land a farmer can own, capping it at 12 000ha per farmer.

"According to a rapid calculation done by organised agriculture [AgriSA in 2015], it is estimated that more than 1 200 current farms are larger than 12 000ha," the report said.

Climate change was also a factor which would have a significant impact on South Africa, the rest of the agricultural map of the world, and on yields.

Direct effects

South Africa was a semi-arid, water-scarce country with a high degree of natural variability in its weather systems and regular extreme events like droughts and flooding.

"Climate change will amplify the water, energy and food production challenges. Rising emissions, climbing regional temperatures and the associated shifts in climatic patterns are already altering rainfall and temperature patterns, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, shrinking arable land and shifting available water supply," the report said.

"The impact on agricultural production, on the raising of livestock and on sustaining fisheries will be positive in some agricultural systems and regions and negative in others. These effects will vary over time."

 Direct effects on crop production could include:

- Changes in yield

- Proliferation of weeds, plant diseases and pests

- A shift in growing seasons

- Restricted availability of irrigation.

Indirectly, these could result in:

- Impacts on the supply-chain infrastructure

- Higher food prices

- Volatility in supply and demand

- Higher production risk

- Livelihood vulnerability in the agricultural sector.

"The Citrus Growers’ Association of South Africa lists a volatile climate and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events as among the top five factors that will shape the citrus industry, a key labour-intensive, high-value export sector, in the next five to ten years," the report said.

"Potatoes South Africa echoes this concern and has initiated research into the impact of climate change on potato production in the country."

Water availability

According to the report, most soils in South Africa are extremely vulnerable to degradation and do not recover well, with even small mistakes in land management being possibly devastating, with little chance of recovery.

"About 25% of South Africa’s soils are highly susceptible to wind erosion, including the sandy soils of the North West and the Free State, where 75% of the country’s maize is grown."

In regards to water, the report stated that water availability will be one of the biggest constraining factors for growth in the agricultural sector, with almost two-thirds of South Africa’s surface water being used by irrigated agriculture.

Water quality was also an increasing problem for food safety, while demand was already outstripping supply in many catchment areas with rainfall, and therefore river flow, unevenly spread throughout the country.

"South Africa’s rainfall is highly variable, as is this run-off and river flow, meaning that approximately only 30% of this mean annual resource is captured in developed infrastructure, including dams and water transfer schemes," the report stated.

"As much as 98% of these water resources are already allocated. Furthermore, it will be more difficult, and expensive and often ecological undesirable to develop the remaining 70% of mean annual water resource through physically engineered infrastructure."

Water demand was expected to grow by 32% by 2030, and climate change would result in shifting rainfall patterns and increasing unpredictability of where and when rain will fall.

Read more on:    wwf  |  johannesburg  |  water  |  agriculture

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