A billion mouths to feed by 2030 – time to make a plan

By 2030, the world will have one billion more mouths to feed. To meet this growing food need, we require a sustainable, enabling agricultural environment. Can this be achieved in 17 years? Nedbank Capital’s Zhann Meyer thinks it can, but we need to act now.

The subject of an enabling agri-environment is a broad and very complex one, which typically, and understandably, gives rise to much heated debate. It’s easy to get bogged down discussing the need for forward-thinking policies and government involvement, but for the purpose of this article, let’s assume that government and all relevant political stakeholders in South Africa’s agriculture sector recognise that a stable, predictable and enabling political environment, governed by a fair and equitable legal framework, is non-negotiable.

This will allow us to move forward in our thinking and explore some of the other factors needed to ensure that Southern Africa’s looming food security crisis is averted and, in fact, reversed. Importantly, these are factors within the control of all of South Africa’s agriculture stakeholders – from public and private sector participants to environmentalists, farmers and even consumers.

Coping with climate change
The growing effects of climate change will undoubtedly have an increasingly critical impact on South Africa’s ability to create and sustain an enabling agri-environment. Any failure to effectively and immediately address the negative effect of climate change on our farmlands and other natural resources will contribute exponentially to our inability to deliver on the steadily rising food production demands faced by all commercial farmers.

According to figures regularly presented by the G20 and its sustainability advisers, the world can only handle a maximum average atmospheric temperature increase of 2°C before we are faced with potentially catastrophic permanent changes to the planet and its systems – including agriculture. Simply trying to maintain carbon dioxide emissions at current levels is not enough to prevent this scenario.

We need to reduce our carbon emissions drastically across all our industries and market sectors. While some might argue that agriculture is a relatively low carbon sector, this does not free us from our responsibility to do our fair share in reducing carbon levels. If, as we say, we want to be a responsible and sustainable contributor to our country’s future, we need to make sure that every participant in agriculture is proactively seeking more carbon-friendly ways of farming and servicing the supply chain.

Read: How to feed 9 billion people

Precision farming for healthier soil 

Meeting the steadily increasing food demands of the nation is going to put ever-greater strain on the country’s already stretched soil potential. If, as farmers, we are serious about keeping up with these demands, we need to start by maximising our soil potential – and we need to begin right now. In the past, we may have got by on the anecdotal advice of previous generations of farmers in our families, but times have changed, and our industry must adapt accordingly.

Precision farming needs to become the norm, with soil protection and enhancement processes, as recommended by qualified soil scientists and agronomists, as standard practice. Evidence of the value of this approach can already be seen among farmers who have adopted such basic practices as adding a measured application of lime to their soil every three years, following variable seeding processes, and applying fertiliser based on soil maps overlaid with a harvest monitor.

If these relatively straightforward methods can increase yields – sometimes by as much as 30% – imagine what a fully scientific approach to farming could accomplish within the next 17 years. And the resultant reduction in nitrates leaching their way into our soils and groundwater sources would be a significant added benefit.

Bigger is better
While there is a definite need across South Africa for much higher levels of subsistence farming as a way for people and communities to meet their own food needs, the trend towards larger commercial farms is likely to continue well into the future. The consolidation of smaller farms into large operations is a natural consequence of the fact that economies of scale can help address rising input costs.

Of course, such economies of scale don’t only lower costs – they also reduce carbon emissions through the use of more 
modern, environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient equipment. In a similar vein, geographical reorganisation of farming activities within sub- regions is likely to become increasingly widespread – and is another essential piece of the enabling agri-environment puzzle. We have already witnessed the start of this phenomenon, with farmers relocating parts, or all, of their operations to regions or neighbouring countries where better access to water and healthier soil profiles promise higher and steadier yields.

A carefully planned combinationof such consolidation and relocation activities is key to the sustainability and robustness of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

Water use
The trend towards greater use of drip irrigation and probe-driven scheduling – particularly among large fruit producers – has the potential to be another important contributor to the creation of a sustainable and enabling agri-environment. Water scarcity is undoubtedly one of the biggest and fastest-growing concerns in the industry. Because of this, the proven water savings – of over 15% in many cases – delivered through computerised water applications cannot be ignored.

The ability of our country’s commercial farmers to adapt to changing water patterns and constrained water availability is key to the development of an enabling agricultural environment. Often, this requires as much of a change in mind-set as it does a change in action.

Read: Tina on feeding a nation

Farmers need to become more open to the idea of planting different crops than what may have been grown on their farms for generations in the past. Recent far-reaching advances in seed technology have enabled such diversification, but the success of this approach now depends on the ability of all stakeholders to adopt it and learn how to maximise its benefits.

Vision needed
If ever there was a time for farmers to make a plan, this is it. It has often been said that Africa will be the food basket of the world by 2030. This perception presents our continent, and our country, with massive opportunities to become an indispensable part of the world’s solution to global food insecurity. If every participant in our agriculture industry makes a conscious decision to help realise this vision, we can achieve it over the next 17 years.

Let’s get to work!

Zhann Meyer is the Africa head of global commodity finance at Nedbank Capital. Phone Thomas Mills (media relations) on 011 775 5711 or email [email protected].

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.