When I am approached by South African farmers who want to better understand what all the fuss regarding conservation agriculture (CA) is about, it is obvious that a fair number of them think supporters of CA are a bit barmy. This saddens me because I firmly believe that CA provides us with the chance to recitify the damage that we South African farmers have done, and continue to do, to one of our most precious resources: soil.
This is all the more relevant because 2015 has been declared the International Year of Soils by the 68th United Nations General Assembly. The UN knows well that healthy soil is the basis of healthy food production, and that soil is a non-renewable resource. I believe that many of the world’s ills are due to two reasons: many people struggle to feed themselves, and many are unable to find a purpose for themselves in life.
Farmers who think that they are sitting pretty on their farms, surrounded by their luxuries, and won’t be affected by problems elsewhere in the world, are mistaken. The implementation of CA can make a positive contribution towards remedying some of the difficulties that the world is experiencing. For example, it can help to significantly negate the very real effects that climate change is going to have on food production.
Instead of governments focusing on implementing new taxes supposedly aimed at forcing people and companies to reduce their impact on the climate and environment, but are actually just another money-making scheme for the state, they should rather be promoting sustainable living methods, which include widespread CA implementation.
A serious issue
CA is not a fad. This is supported by a 7 August 2014 article titled ‘When land is degraded, its people and their prospects are degraded too’ written by the executive secretary of the UN convention to combat desertification, Monique Barbut, and published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
In many places across South Africa we can see what Barbut is writing about. It is a frightening fact that as soon as you take away anyone’s livelihood, his or her self-worth, quality of life and future prospects will degrade. Barbut quoted frightening statistics that emerged from a 2014 meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One of these was that two-thirds of African land is already degraded to some degree. This figure includes land in South Africa.
Degraded land affects about 485 million Africans in all. We have simply let this precious resource go to waste. But Barbut also pointed out that if the people of sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africans, could improve land and water management on only a quarter of the region’s 300 million hectares of existing croplands, food and fibre production off this land could be increased by an incredible 50%. She added that sub-Saharan farmers and herders who are implementing sustainable land use practices are helping to keep degradation of their land to a minimum.
I strongly believe that livestock and other animals can play a major role in regenerating land. Too many CA-minded farmers fixate on only using one method, such as no-till, to regenerate their soils and farm them sustainably. I These farmers should also implement other methods to promote sustainable agriculture holistically.
The younger generation
Another concern that I have is that, like me, many current CA farmers and supporters in South Africa are already quite elderly. We need younger people to take up the cause. The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa aged 15 to 24 is expected to grow from 168 million in 2010 to 300 million in 2050.
These youngsters must be educated about, and encouraged to adopt, CA practices. If existing farmers and governments in sub-Saharan Africa start now to promote CA among these youngsters, and mentor those who become farmers, emigration from our region to Europe could be reduced by up to 60 million people. We need many young people to sustainably produce the food and fibre that our continent will need into the future.
The following quote on the power of CA to effect change should be highly encouraging. It comes from a paper published by the Rodale Institute and titled ‘Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming’.
“Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term regenerative organic agriculture. These practices work to maximise carbon fixation while minimising the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.”
CA forms part of regenerative organic agriculture. While farmers can be responsible for polluting the air, they can also take responsibility for reversing this.
Proven in tests
The October 2014 issue of The No-Till Farmer revealed interesting statistics from a 1997 study of a Fayette silt loam soil on a farm in Iowa, USA. A hectare of soil released 638kg/ha of CO2 within the first five minutes of being ploughed with a mouldboard plough and 2 567kg/ha of CO2 within the first 24 hours of being ploughed with this implement. In contrast, a no-till planter released 3kg/ha of CO2 within the first five minutes of planting and a total of 56kg/ha of CO2 within the first 24 hours of planting.
These figures show that all farmers can contribute to sustainable farming practices if they want to, and they also show that CA farmers are already playing a positive role.
Water scarcity is becoming a major concern globally, including in water-scarce South Africa. In addition, not managing our soils properly contributes to water run-off taking valuable soil with it. In his book, No-Till Advantages and Benefits in Crop Production, Dr Aubrey Venter reveals that due to unsustainable farming practices, South Africa loses an estimated 300 million tons of soil – the equivalent of 10 million fully-loaded 30t interlink trucks – annually due to water erosion. In some cases, these losses are at four times the rate that the affected soils could be replaced through natural processes.
This is extremely concerning given that only 13% of South Africa is suitable for crop production. Of this, a mere 3% is considered high-potential cropping land. It’s also extremely concerning given that the country’s major water storage dams are rapidly silting up as a result of soil erosion. Silted dams hold much less vitally needed water. And we cannot keep building new dams; it is extremely expensive and not always practical.
About two million hectares of cropland on the SA Highveld are subject to severe wind erosion. These soils lose between 20t/ha/year and 60t/ ha/ year of fine material from their surfaces, as well as large volumes of organic matter and soil nitrogen. Sixty percent of SA soils are already very low in critical organic matter.
We cannot ignore the facts. The extent of cover on the soil is by far the most important factor influencing soil losses. We must look after what we have, and we have to consider CA. For this to happen, we need friends of CA who will encourage us to encourage others, and share their enthusiasm. We also need those who want to serve so that we can serve others. As the Guardian’s ‘Poverty Matters’ blog has stated: “If we procrastinate on such matters we are doomed.” – Lloyd Philips