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South African agriculture: endangered or saved by climate change?

Africa is a very rich country despite what everyone might think. It is wealthy in terms of vegetation types, biodiversity, climates and different types of soil. It has the second largest tropical rainforest, only behind Amazonia, which is home to millions of species of animals and more than 6,000 species of trees. They extend over 3.3 million square kilometers and are considered vital to the fight against climate change, due to their capacity to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2).

With these natural conditions, and the vast types of soil, one of the country’s main economic activities is agriculture, from farming to livestock production. Since tackling the issue of underdevelopment in Africa is of the outmost importance, the nation is being supported by the United Nations (UN) to achieve the goals for Sustainable Development, that include No poverty, Zero hunger, Decent work and economic growth, Responsible consumption and production, Climate Action, among others.

Where does agriculture stand in South Africa?

This sector is a very important source of employment in rural areas and it contributes year after year to foreign exchange and commerce. Since the landscapes, weather and land features are so rich in South Africa, agriculture is diverse in terms of crops. According to South African Government, agriculture-related activities play an important role in the process of economic development and can contribute significantly to household food security. The National Development Plan (NDP) sets out a broad vision of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030, along with the UN 2030 agenda.

What is more, climate change is moving rapidly, deforestation for instance is eliminating a fair share of the country’s rainforest at a rate of 0.3% a year, and with the current demand for palm oil, this number is prone to rise.

The droughts and shorter rainfall seasons are also affecting agricultural activities and South Africa is staying behind other nation’s production such as India, as well as it faces more threats and challenges to produce the necessary number of crops to meet the growing global demand.

To add to the previous point, there is a large amount of food waste happening all over the world. So much food gets thrown away by restaurants, lost during transport, storage, food processing and retail. This constitutes the main reason to why production needs are so high. If we can find a way to stop wasting food through sustainable living, it could mean a positive change for our environment. Land, water, and resources wouldn’t be as exploited as they currently are, and we would decrease the toxic gases that come from food decomposition. Another alternative would be the correct management of organic waste, such as compost, to nourish the lands that are eroding and contribute to a faster disintegration of these residues.

Furthermore, the continuing increase in population every year causes a greater need for food production, an issue that is becoming increasingly difficult due to higher temperatures, fewer clean water and natural resources, all consequence of Climate Change.

Then, how is Climate Change going to help the development of agriculture in South Africa?

It probably sounds unlikely, however, many international organizations are concerned and working toward a sustainable development. In this case, the rainforests hold about 250 million tons of carbon a year, and different studies show that those in Africa store more carbon dioxide than the Amazonia. With the hope of keeping global temperature increases below the 2°C it is important that these rainforests are well protected. Initiatives like those of the Paris Summit in 2015 have stated incentives for the protection of forests to prevent at a global scale the increase of carbon levels.

Moreover, international policies like the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development are designed to tackle issues well beyond climate change. This means that there are different pressing issues in the world, one of them being climate conditions, but there are more, for example hunger, poverty, gender inequality, education and health, clean energy access, economic growth and many others which Africa currently suffers from.

In South Africa there is a current trend of sustainable agricultural practices with intentions to change the management of water and natural resources, contribute to the economic and social well-being of the country, good quality food production and to maintain its rich biodiversity.

Following the National Development Plan mentioned above, the South African government aims to ensure that one million hectares are used to produce crops including fruit and livestock and provide superior breeding animals to targeted smallholder and subsistence farmers.

New trends and technologies are the right path towards global change. In this case, there is currently a program in Senegal that could find its way into South Africa to improve farmers crops through Artificial Intelligence (AI). The initiative started as a collaboration between the Dakar Institute of Technology (DIT) and the French AI school VIVADATA. The main idea of this program is to analyze data like rainfall, soil quality, PH, temperature and moisture levels, to show exactly when and where farmers should water or fertilize the land and help them understand the new way their crops are adjusting to climate change.

Many more developments like VIVADATA are arising, providing the necessary opportunities for developing countries, which in partnership with international, Non-profit, public or private organisations, will be able to reach local people and help them improve their way of life. Finally, with technology’s accelerated rhythm, there are more opportunities to understand how the world is changing and to teach us the way we should adapt and care for it.