Spotlight on SA food security

2014-11-02 15:00

With food security issues and the development of small business in South Africa high on the agenda, one would expect the agriculture sector to be ­going from strength to strength. But the sector is plagued by a number of issues, highlighted this week by the Agricultural Research Council.

According to the WWF, only 3% of South Africa’s land is fertile and only 12% is suitable for production of rain-fed crops. Challenges like climate change and water scarcity are forcing farmers to make sure they use this land wisely.

Statistics from the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries show there were 120?000 commercial farms in the 1950s, and there are now 36?000. Yet the sector remains important not only for food, but for providing jobs to farm workers and small-scale farmers.

This week, the Agricultural Research Council put the spotlight on some of the biggest issues in the sector that produces South Africa’s food. Water and climate change are the biggest, and we might already be starting to feel the effects. The council’s chief executive, Shadrack Moephuli, and some of his researchers broke it down:


As the climate changes, there is an ­implication for production of various crops in the country.

According to council researcher Johan Malherbe, temperatures are getting warmer and some areas of South Africa are getting wetter while others are getting drier.

According to him, in the climate projection model, extreme weather ­patterns will become more frequent.

He said in the next century, average temperatures would rise by about 4°C, even 5°C in some areas, and this might have a massive impact on horticulture (plant cultivation).

“One must keep in mind that an increase in ­temperature decreases the chance of rainfall over time,” he added.

Maize, soya beans and potatoes might be the hardest hit.

The optimal and suboptimal areas to grow maize will move away from North West to Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. Soya bean areas will move further north.


The global agricultural sector has done well in keeping things such as foot-and-mouth disease under control.

But council researcher Mishack Mulumba said climate change, particularly in areas where rainfall might rise, could increase the risk of diseases like Rift Valley Fever – a viral disease affecting livestock and humans.

The last outbreak in South Africa was in 2010 and resulted in the death of 26 farmers.

“It also leads to huge economic losses because of deaths and abortions of livestock, restrictions on exports in the country and, of course, the loss of human life,” Mulumba said.

“We are also getting a shift in areas of tick-borne diseases and that needs us to prepare differently,” Mulumba said.


South Africa is a drought-prone country and things are expected to get worse rather than better, according to council researcher Kingston Mashingaidze. Maize will be hardest hit. “Farmers grow maize in wide rows to ease the moisture stress on crops, but this results in lower yields.

“Those who can afford to irrigate have a higher yield. But even with irrigation, crops are still ­affected by drought. The situation is worse for smaller farmers who can’t afford irrigation.”

South Africa is one of the biggest producers of maize on the continent.

The Agricultural Research Council is in a

public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa. Through the partnership, new drought-tolerant varieties are being developed and, according to Mashingaidze, some that have been developed have improved crop yields by at least 25% under drought conditions.


Agriculture consumes about 67% of the country’s water through dams and irrigation systems, and with the country’s low rainfall, and its water crisis, scarcity is having a huge effect on agriculture.

Council chief executive Moephuli said: “We need the ability to save, use less and get more in terms of production: more crop per drop of water – an important parameter in improving ­productivity of different cultures of crops.”

According to him, water scarcity can be ­challenging for smaller farmers.

“[Part of] the main issue with new entrants is that they have no technical expertise to run very complex systems and the infrastructure on ­farming enterprises is poor.

“We are also concerned about the quality of the water because contaminated water is dangerous and affects consumers, and doesn’t provide the best for the performance of production,” he said.

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