Amid dire predictions of drought, extreme weather events and diminished harvests, prospects for the agricultural sector in southern Africa may seem bleak. What can farmers do to mitigate the risks they face in the coming years, as the threat of climate change becomes a reality?

The first place many consumers will experience the initial realities of climate change is on the supermarket shelves. Extreme weather events, drought, and flooding are becoming ever more regular occurrences globally, impacting crop yields, food prices, and the availability of fresh produce. Agriculture is on the front line of climate change.

Three crops, namely rice, wheat, and corn, feed the global population and provide nearly half of the world’s calories. However, changes in climate have meant a resurgence in the popularity of  ancient crops such as millet, sorghum, sweet potato, and cassava, which grow well in hot and dry conditions.

Climate outlook

Southern Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change, according to the Centre for Environmental Rights, with warming in the interior of the region occurring at approximately twice the global average.

In its report Climate Impacts in Southern Africa during the 21st Century, the Centre warns of extreme heat stress and weather events, including storms, flooding, and droughts, and likely crop failures and food insecurity in the region.

In a recent article in Business Day, the chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, Wandile Sihlobo, wrote that crops were “visibly strained” due to higher temperatures and limited rainfall in February. “Excessive heat across the country in recent weeks is sparking fears about possible yield loss” for the upcoming harvest.

The South African Department of Environmental Affairs predicts in its white paper National Climate Change Response that by the middle of this century coastal regions will warm by 1°C to 2°C and the interior by 2°C to 3°C. By 2100, warming is projected to reach around 3°C to 4°C along the coast, and 6°C to 7°C in the interior.

“Life as we know it will change completely; parts of the country will be much drier and increased evaporation will ensure an overall decrease in water availability,” the report notes.

The G20 Climate Risk Atlas predicts that heatwaves will “push South Africa’s agriculture sector to the edge”.

Adaptation – the future of agriculture

Climate-related threats to the agricultural sector could have dire consequences for South Africa’s economy and food security. Agricultural exports of crops such as maize, wine, grapes, citrus, and avocados are an important contributor to GDP.

South Africa’s agricultural exports reached a new record of $13.2 billion in 2023, up 3% from the previous year. Thirty-eight percent of exports went to Africa, 28% to Asia and 19% to markets in the European Union.

Senior economist at Grain SA Corné Louw said farmers in southern Africa are used to climate cycles caused by the El Niño and La Niña phenomena: “While some farmers attribute the extreme changes seen in climate to these cycles, others say the changes have been more severe over shorter periods than normal.”

Working in a semi-arid country, South African farmers know it is of the upmost importance to conserve moisture and maintain soil health. This is especially true of the grain and seed industry, where only 10% of planted farmland is under irrigation.  

Louw believes the geographical areas where maize is planted in South Africa are not likely to change dramatically in the short term due to climatic factors, except for the extreme western parts of the North West province. “It is important for farmers to be aware of the changes in climate and to have the tools to help them mitigate the risks,” he said.

Conservation agriculture or biological solutions?

“Climate is a top-of-mind concern for the farming community,” Sihlobo said in an interview. He explained potential methods to mitigate against the effects of climate change on current crops include improvements in production methods and biological solutions.

Seed breeding to manage shifts in rainfall, harsh climatic conditions, and intense heat is gaining in popularity as advances in gene editing technology are used to create newly resilient crop varieties with improved yields.

Louw used the example of the HB4 drought gene, which was developed in Argentina in 2019, as an enhanced seed that offers promise. This gene assists plants to be more tolerant in periods of drought and improves the adaptation capacity of plants under stress without affecting their productivity.

HB4 wheat has been approved for commercial production in Argentina and approved for human consumption by regulators in the form of flour in Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Production methods, including conservation agriculture, also offer an alternative solution, Sihlobo explained.

Ploughing and the removal of crop residues after harvest leave the soil naked and vulnerable to wind and rain, resulting in gradual, often unnoticed erosion of the soil. Erosion also puts carbon into the air, where it contributes to climate change.

Conservation agriculture, or regenerative agriculture, aims to prevent the loss of arable land while also regenerating damaged or degraded farmland. It takes into account soil structure and moisture so that nutrient-dense topsoil doesn’t get washed away in heavy rainfall. It is considered an ideal system for sustainable and climate-smart agricultural intensification, according to Grain SA.

South Africa’s agriculture industry is well placed to adapt to shifting and difficult climatic conditions, including drought, as agility and flexibility will be key to the future of farming. There is a growing awareness that conservation agriculture and similar methods, which place soil health front and centre, are important for the long-term sustainability of farming.

Wine: New methods for a traditional industry

European winemakers are turning to new technologies such as precision viticulture, sensors, and drones to map vineyards and guide decisions on water use and to optimise harvest times, according to a recent article in the Financial Times. New breeding technologies are also becoming available to develop drought-tolerant rootstocks.

Rising temperatures are pushing vineyards to ever higher altitudes and into new geographical regions, with Britain becoming the fastest-growing wine region in the world.

Buyers are snapping up vineyards to plant varieties such as pinot noir, suited to temperate regions, hedging themselves against the risk of higher temperatures in other terroirs.

Severe heatwaves, a shifting rainy season, and intense storms in the Western Cape have meant many of the province’s well-established wine farmers are beginning to reconsider their farming methods, and even which cultivars they grow.

“Climate change is not just about drought and low rainfall. We are seeing freak weather events such as two record-breaking floods in one year, unseasonable rain during the summer months, late summers, and milder winters. It is making the usually somewhat predictable rhythms of farming a lot more challenging and resulting in farmers and winemakers having to think a lot on their feet,” Jenna Bruwer Kruger, a fifth-generation member of the family that owns Springfield Estate in Robertson, said.

South Africa’s wine industry faced a severe drought between 2015 and 2017, when the region was facing its so-called Day Zero, the point when Cape Town would potentially run out of water. Then, in September 2023, severe flooding left wine estates reeling. As wine commentator Michael Fridjhon reported in Business Day: “Torrential rainfall over the Heritage Day long weekend in September resulted in some of the most frightening flood events in recent memory.”

Worst-hit were the wine-growing regions of Franschhoek, the Hemel-en-Aarde and Elgin valleys, and the regions surrounding the Breede River (Robertson and Bonnievale), “resulting in extensive damage to vineyards and orchards in the area”.

The floods meant large swathes of Springfield’s vines were completely submerged during the critical budding stage of development. As a result, “the 2024 harvest has resulted in a much smaller yield, very irregular fruiting in one vineyard block with some sections carrying no grapes, while others look normal and regular. Flood damage to roads and vineyards themselves have made certain vineyards very difficult to access with harvesting machines, resulting in us needing to harvest certain vineyards by hand,” Bruwer Kruger said.

Adaptation is key to the long-term prosperity of the wine sector. Wine varieties such as chenin blanc, syrah, pinotage and cinsault are gaining in popularity among growers as they can withstand higher temperatures and require less water.

However, Bruwer Kruger said the industry still has a “reactionary mindset. It will take a long time to revolutionise the entire industry with different rootstock, planting, and pruning methods.”

“Many producers are looking to plant more drought-resistant varieties when planning new sites, but work needs to be done to market and sell these cultivars to the consumer. If they don’t buy in to drinking these wines then there is no point in planting the vine, which are a lifetime investment, costing millions to establish,” she added.

Opportunity in adversity for olive oil?

The oldest record of olive cultivation in South Africa is of the groves planted at Boscheuvel farm, originally established by the Dutch East India Company VOC in July 1661.

According to the South African Olive Industry Association (SA Olive), world production of the oil has tripled in the last 60 years, exceeding 3.2 million tonnes in the 2020 season. The European Union accounts for 70% of global production, led by Spain, Italy, and Greece.

Extreme weather in these countries reduced harvests in 2023, with crop yields falling by more than two-thirds because of unusually warm weather, which meant trees weren’t able to rest as they should have during the winter months.

A dry, hot summer season in Italy and Greece saw temperatures regularly exceeding 40°C, while farmers on the island of Rhodes were hit by the destruction of some 50 000 olive trees in wildfires, according to reports in the FT.

Bulk prices of olive oil have soared as a result, doubling in a year to about €9 000 per tonne, and pushing up retail prices.

Locally, land under olive cultivation has doubled in size from 1 800 hectares to nearly 3 700. Olive farming is growing by a minimum 20% per annum, making it the fastest-growing agricultural sub-sector in the country. Most of the land under olive cultivation in South Africa – 95% – is in the Western Cape due to its Mediterranean climate. 

The changing climate in traditional growing regions might have a positive spin-off for the South African olive industry as it grows in reputation and area under cultivation increases in the years to come.

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