Conservation agriculture forging an environmentally friendly food system

 South Africa has a well-developed, but highly dichotomous, agricultural sector.

 
A world-class large-scale commercial sector sits juxtaposed to a plethora of small-scale resource-poor sector.

Land and other natural resources degradation pose a significant challenge in South Africa with 60 percent of the land currently degraded according to a 1997 United Nations Environmental Programme and 91 percent of South Africa is potentially susceptible to desertification.

In an attempt to satisfy the South African population's infinite demand for food and other farmed products, people often overly exploit the finite natural resources that are used in the process. Land is the most overly exploited natural resource leading to its degradation.

 
Land degradation occurs in both communal lands, especially in the steep sloping environments adjacent to the escarpment in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape, and commercially farmed lands due to complex socio-economic drivers, as well as climate change.

Land degradation undermines the productive potential of land and water resources, affects human welfare, and causes extensive alien plant invasion and biodiversity loss.

Alien plant species tend to be opportunistic increasers that take advantage of a decrease in the land’s indigenous species.

 
Eighty percent of South Africa’s land surface area is used for subsistence agriculture, but only about 11 percent of this is suitable for cultivation. According to the 2008 State of the Environment South Africa, nearly 85 percent of the land cover, 10.83 million hectares (ha), is rain-fed. The cultivated areas cover about 12.76 million ha, 82 percent , of which roughly 10.45 million ha is permanently under cultivation. More than 0.7 million ha of land is degraded through soil erosion and 0.19 million ha is degraded by waste rock dumps and mining. Twenty nine percent of the degraded area is cropland, 33 percent is forest and 37 percent is rangeland.

Despite the bleak picture painted thus far, it is not all doom and gloom. South Africa has an opportunity, albeit diminishing, to stem the tide of natural resource denudation. The country has the wherewithal to address natural resource degradation given the scientific research capacity and expertise that exists in South Africa.

A number of agricultural and natural resource research institutions such as universities, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and South African Council for Geosciences, to name but a few, have considerable capacity and experienced researchers in the field of natural resource management.

 
Furthermore, South Africa has is experienced in practising conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture is sometimes referred to as Resource Conservation Technology.

Conservation agriculture is an approach for the designing and management of sustainable and resource-conserving agricultural systems. It seeks to conserve, improve and make more efficient use of natural resources through integrated management of soil, water, crops and other biological resources, in combination with selected external inputs.

Such a technological package represents a resource saving and efficient agriculture that contributes to environmental conservation and at the same time enhances production on a sustainable basis. Elements of conservation agriculture, amongst others, include improved on-farm water management, minimum tillage, organic soil cover, direct seeding through crop residue and appropriate crop rotations to avoid disease and pest build-up problems.

Given the ever-increasing populations, which translates into increased demand for food and fibre, and the ever-diminishing natural resource base, a new paradigm has to be developed to ensure that agricultural systems are sustainable going into the future.

The current approach of relying heavily on external and often inorganic (synthetic) inputs to maintain and/or increase food production is unsustainable in the long run as it impoverishes the soils, produces excessive carbon emissions and pollutes the environment, including natural water bodies.

Furthermore, for a country such as South Africa, this inordinate reliance on external synthetic inputs for agricultural production comes at the cost of depleting our foreign exchange reserves as most of these inputs are imported – at least the bulk of the ingredients are not locally sourced and manufactured.

This article calls a for a paradigm shift towards an agricultural system that is highly efficient but also takes into cognisance concerns of productivity, natural resource conservation, and quality of the environment for posterity.

This change of mindset is not ideologically inspired, but purely fundamental and absolutely necessary if the country is to continue to be self-sufficient in food and also be the breadbasket of the African continent while earning foreign exchange through exports of agricultural commodities.

Developing such environmentally benign agricultural production systems will be demanding in terms of the knowledge base. Thus, this calls for a much-enhanced capacity of scientists to address problems using a systems approach.

Scientists and centres of scientific knowledge such as universities and science councils need to get closer to farmers and learn how to effectively work with farmers and other stakeholders while strengthening knowledge and information-sharing mechanisms.

Conservation agriculture offers a workable approach to dealing with a declining resource base while enhancing productivity and ensuring sustainable agriculture for the present and future. Thus, environmentally friendly agriculture and productivity are not mutually exclusive.

There are numerous examples the world-over, including locally, where conservation agriculture and organic farming is thriving. However, the South African agricultural sector and policy makers need to be in it for the long haul and go the whole hog. Initially, it may appear that there are productivity losses, but these would only be cost of learning a “new” system and approach.

The role of science cannot be over-emphasised and a proper scientific approach would help the sector circumvent certain pitfalls and fast track the transition at minimal cost to production levels.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an experienced agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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