According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global temperatures will increase by more than 1,5°C by the end of the 21st century, and southern Africa can expect up to a 10% decrease in rainfall over most of the region. In official IPCC publications, however, such statements are qualified by words such as ‘likely’, or ‘very likely’, which are generally omitted in mass-media articles about climate change.
Data about climate change mostly comes from 1850 to the present – a very short period in terms of global climate. Longer-term data shows that warmer and colder periods have followed each other. There is also uncertainty about the relationship between carbon levels in the atmosphere and climate change. Despite this, it’s generally accepted that the planet is getting warmer, possibly drier and that something must be done about it.
Well and good. But if we accept that temperatures are higher and rainfall trends are lower, then one can expect reduced agricultural production. However, this has yet to happen in South Africa. Indeed, agricultural production increased by 75% from 1980 to 2013, with animal production up by 122%.
Between the 1985/1986 and 2013/2014 seasons, South Africa’s average maize yield increased from below 1,5t/ha to more than 4t/ha. The latest Crop Estimate Committee estimate expects a yield of more than 5t/ha for the current season. This is due largely to an increase in maize production technology and area under irrigation. It’s a trend that is probably true for farming in general. Improvements in production practices and plant and animal genetics have resulted in higher production in the face of a changing climate.
On the other hand, climate change has become a convenient excuse for crop failures, especially in developing countries. Not long ago, for example, we were told that emerging maize producers in Limpopo faced ruin as a result of a failed crop caused by ‘global warming’.
However, average maize yields in the province as a whole were actually higher than in the previous year. Does this not therefore suggest other factors were responsible for the failure of that specific crop? By contrast, Zambia’s maize industry is an example of how the use of efficient production methods, even in small-scale agriculture, can result in higher yield.
In short, good farming practices and the use of modern technology can more than compensate for possible climate change.
What’s in it for me?
Higher temperatures in some areas will also result in more favourable production conditions. This is particularly true for the high-lying areas in the Free State, Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, where frost in winter is prevalent. Higher temperatures will enable farmers in these areas to produce more from pastures.
In addition, while climate change as such will probably have little effect on agriculture in the immediate future, there are certain benefits for farmers in society’s concerns about carbon emissions and other environmental aspects.
In the EU, for instance, many farmers earn more from energy sales than from farming. Government subsidies for photovoltaic, wind and biogas energy make the production of energy a lucrative enterprise.
In South Africa, the absence of similar subsidies and Eskom’s unwillingness to repurchase energy make it very difficult for individual farmers to produce energy. And it seems as if the generation of wind energy will remain in the hands of big business, unlike the situation in the EU. However, opportunities to generate electricity will open up as energy costs increase and government and Eskom change their energy policies to accommodate small-scale energy generators.
In addition, if farmers can reduce their farming operations’ carbon footprint, they will have a good selling point with the consumer and the retail chains. Ironically, though, a carbon-efficient farming operation differs largely from the consumer’s perception of what it should look like. For one thing, more intensive farms have a smaller carbon footprint than less intensive farms.
So organised agriculture and agribusinesses will have to educate the consumer about sustainable agricultural production and address misconceptions such as the superiority of extensive farming. But the opportunities are there and climate change could well see your profits increasing!
Dr Koos Coetzee is an agricultural economist at the MPO. All opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect MPO policy.