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Western Cape fights climate change food security threat

Recently, Alan Winde, Minister of Economic Opportunities, addressed the Landcare Conference, which was hosted by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture at Elsenburg.

Minister Winde outlined the impacts of climate change and the Western Cape’s strategy to deal with these factors. This year’s Landcare conference comes at a very exciting time for the Western Cape’s agriculture sector. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils.

“This is particularly relevant as today we are here to speak about landcare,” Winde said. ”We’ve also just approved Project Khulisa, the province’s growth plan for the next five years.”

Project Khulisa identified sectors which are growing the fastest and have the highest job creation potential. One of these is the agri-processing sector. Under a high-growth scenario this sector could add up to 100,000 jobs to the economy and generate R26bn.

“The agriculture sector is the backbone of province’s rural economy and 45% of the country’s exports come from the Western Cape. Growing the size of the agri-processing sector stands to deliver a significant boost to rural employment.”

This focus on agriculture is in line with the developments taking place across the continent. In a recent address, Kofi Annan pointed to the fact that Africa is importing USD34bn worth of food. We can produce the majority of this food ourselves. At the same time, despite these volumes, Mr Annan highlights the fact that over 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are going hungry.  It’s also estimated that about 9 million tons is wasted or lost of the 29 million tons of food produced in South Africa each year.

“We know that Africa has the most arable land and we need to make sure that Africans lead the way forward. The World Economic Forum has also looked at the trends shaping our continent. By 2030, the continent’s population is set to double and 50% of this expanding population will be living in cities.Coupled with climate change, these growth estimates will place increasing pressure on natural resources. These are factors we have to consider in our own growth strategies.”

Climate change specifically poses a major threat to global food security. Economically, climate related events cost the Western Cape R3bn between 2003 and 2008.

“We know that extreme weather events are not a new phenomenon. Yet, we are also seeing that temperatures are rising and there has been a reduction of rainy days in autumn and summer. There’s also been a progressively later start and end to the rainy season,” Winde added.

The projections for the Western Cape for 2040 to 2060 also show a changing planet. Higher minimum and maximum temperatures as well as reduced annual rainfall are predicted. For extensive livestock production, dairy cattle may be impacted by heat stress leading to reduced milk production and, in a worst case scenario, infertility.  Intensive livestock production, which includes chickens and feedlot cattle, is also more likely to be impacted by heat stress which could lead to diseases.

Winde said the biggest threat facing winter grains are the spread of diseases and weeds and that the situation demands that we take immediate action.

“In the Western Cape, we’ve already introduced conservation agriculture. As a result of this intervention, the province’s wheat farmers have seen increased production and profit, reduced soil erosion and improved water quality and soil health.”

South Africa currently imports about half of its wheat, making innovation essential to encourage an increase in local production. This approach, which is being driven by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Research Council, involves minimum soil disturbance, maximum soil cover and crop rotation.

“An impact study we conducted in partnership with the ARC found the initiative resulted in a R341m saving. Farmers used less herbicide and it was cheaper to fertilise.”

Winde said to produce a yield of three tons per hectare using conventional methods costs  R4,444/ha compared to R2,387 for conservation agriculture, making conservation agriculture R2,057 cheaper per hectare.

“In addition, to ensure that we can respond speedily to the unpredictable environment we are experiencing, we are investing in research.”

In this financial year, the Department of Agriculture’s Research and Innovation unit receives over R100m. This unit is busy with groundbreaking work. Their trials on the effects of tillage and crop rotation on soil quality are producing the kind of knowledge we need to adapt.

Their studies on soil management include the development of strategies to enhance soil quality in our province’s grain producing regions. In the Southern Cape, teams are assessing how we can improve the efficiency of pasture systems to produce the best quality of milk.

“Through the Fruitlook system, we are using satellite technology to analyse crop growth and water use. The technology has helped farmers to improve their production, reduce costs and has raised awareness around water use.”

“We are also partnering with the University of Cape Town and the agricultural sector to develop the climate change response plan, the SmartAgri project. This is being driven jointly by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP.)”

“Through province-wide workshops we are seeking to develop feasible risk management approaches, new technologies, and effective implementation for specific climate risks.”

“Operating sustainably is not only the right thing to do for our planet; it will ensure that here at the tip of Africa we are working smartly to put strategies in place to sustain our sector and secure the future of food security,” Winde concluded.

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