OPINION | The importance of technology to enhancing food security post-Covid-19

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Climate change is having an impact on food security say the writers. (Photo: Pixabay)
Climate change is having an impact on food security say the writers. (Photo: Pixabay)

Technological developments in the agriculture and water sectors are important pathways towards sustainability, food, and water security, writes Luxon Nhamo, Sylvester Mpandeli, Stanley Liphadzi and Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza.


World Food Day on 16 October took place against the backdrop of Covid-19, a pandemic that has compounded household food insecurity worldwide, more pronounced in low- and middle-income countries.

At present, more than 821 million people globally are food insecure, of which 100 million suffer acute hunger, and the figures are expected to rise as a result of the pandemic and subsequent economic lockdowns that were imposed worldwide to reduce its spread.

In the case of South Africa, already 56% of the population lives in poverty, and almost 28% in extreme poverty.

Although South Africa may be food secure at a national level, large numbers of households within the country are food insecure as about 20% are estimated to have inadequate or severely inadequate access to food. The challenge of food security cascades from one sector to the other, requiring urgent transformative approaches to address the challenges in an integrated manner.

Covid-19 impact on GDP

The Covid-19-induced recession is projected to result in a drop of nearly 4% in the world's gross domestic product (GDP), and in Africa alone, the fall is expected to be around 7.8%. This, in turn, incapacitates governments' ability to provide public services needed to respond effectively to the crisis due to reduced revenue collection.

Regional revenue losses are projected to average about 5% in Africa. These steep losses are having repercussions on its progress towards the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and Africa's Agenda 2063 if not addressed in a timely manner.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that 60% of the African population relies on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, and natural resources for their livelihoods.

In addition to the impact of extreme climate shocks on agricultural productivity, there is a strong positive correlation between economic recession and food insecurity in Africa.

The present outlook looks gloom and requires urgent attention to ensure not only food security but also water and energy security.

Covid-19 could not have occurred at the worst time for a continent whose population is highly vulnerable and susceptible to the impacts of climate variability and change and is at high risk of environmental changes.

Preserving access to safe and nutritious food is and will continue to be an essential part of the response to the pandemic, particularly for poor and vulnerable communities who are the most affected by the pandemic and are always the most vulnerable due to limited resources to adapt, which include financial, technological and human capacity.

To successfully enhance food security, there is a need to comprehend and address four socio-ecological thematic areas, which include:

(a) drivers of change,

(b) risk and exposure,

(c) transformative approaches such as nexus planning and sustainable food systems, and

(d) water and food security.

The four areas comprise the main pathways towards efficient agricultural water management solutions and sustainable food systems as they ensure both human and environmental health.

Technological developments in the agriculture and water sectors are always important pathways towards sustainability, food, and water security and they balance resource management and development.

Technology, particularly hydrological and water management tools and models have emerged as essential components of water management.

Examples of technologies that can transform the agriculture and water sectors include the development of smart plants that are more drought tolerant through genetic modification and genome editing.

Some plants can also be engineered to use more efficient photosynthetic pathways that fully use the sun's available energy. This development holds promise for the hot climates and water-scarce regions such as southern Africa.

Remote sensing has also become an important component of irrigation management, particularly in irrigation scheduling.

Developments in precision farming mean that freely available remote sensing products can be used to pinpoint areas of wet and dry zones in cultivated fields as well as for estimating crop water requirements. Such information is vital for variable irrigation scheduling.

Mobile apps and other social media platforms can be used to provide information on weather, rainfall, and soil moisture to allow better farm management and productivity, as well as information on markets.

The Water Research Commission (WRC), with its partners, has initiated research to inform policy on these new technologies, which are promising initiatives in this era of climate variability and change.

Some of the initiatives being spearheaded by the WRC in transforming the agriculture sector and improving crop and water productivity include the promotion of under-utilised indigenous crops, enhancing demonstration of projects that improve rural livelihoods, and the promotion of hydroponics in urban areas to improve urban food security.

Transformative approaches 

Of note is the capability of transformative approaches to enhance integrated agricultural water management solutions.

The advantage is that transformative approaches complement each other in providing management solutions by considering synergies and trade-offs within the whole value chain in their analyses and are a catalyst for sustainable development.

The whole purpose is to provide integrated solutions to increase productivity in irrigated agriculture in water-scarce countries like South Africa, but at the same time increasing crop water productivity.

Available agricultural water management options to improve water and food productivity can be informed through nexus planning to determine their sustainability in South Africa. Through scenario planning, it is feasible to sustainably increase the irrigated area in water-scarce regions. This is possible through transboundary water co-operation, inter-basin transfer, water marketing, agricultural land intensification, and extensification.

Transformative approaches encompass low consumption of energy, low pollutant emission, and high efficiency in resource use, and are restorative and regenerative, reducing losses in the whole value chain.

As we gradually ease the Covid-19 restrictions and start rebuilding our economy and society, South Africa will need to embrace transformative approaches to inform sustainable development, economic development, and the attainment of the constitutional promise of a better life for all.

- Dr Luxon Nhamo, Professor Sylvester Mpandeli, Professor Stanley Liphadzi and Dr Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza work for the Water Research Commission.

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