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Primary food production and its challenges – what does the future hold?

  • 06 November 2015
  • 2051
  •  Nation in Conversation
  •  press-release

Agricultural experts agree that some of the most crucial challenges facing the farming sector today are changing weather patterns, adjusting to a competitive global market, keeping abreast of new technologies, finding ways to use natural resources more sparingly, doing more with less, and closing the productivity gap between new, small-scale farmers and big commercial farmers.
They were taking part in the agricultural discussion programme, Nation in Conversation, which is broadcast weekly on Soweto TV and Business Day TV. With Theo Vorster, Chief Executive of Galileo Capital hosting and leading the discussion, Nation in Conversation aims to foster a better understanding of the agricultural sector and demonstrate its importance for South Africa’s food security and continued existence.
This week’s focus was on primary food production, the challenges it brings, and what the future will hold with regard to food security for South Africa’s growing population.
Taking part in the programme were Thabi Nkosi, Senior Economist at Agri SA, Dr Mmatlou Kalaba, International Trade Economist at Pretoria University, Inge Kotze, Senior Manager Sustainable Agriculture at the Word Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa (WWF-SA), and Kobus Steenekamp, Managing Director of Monsanto South Africa.
Pressure is going to increase to the point where resource efficiency will not be enough to carry us forward in keeping up production, said Inge Kotze. “The global need is to produce 70 percent more food by 2050. How are we going to get more food in the system over the next 35 years? We waste thirty to forty percent of food in every element of the food chain, from farm to fork on the table. How are we going to address food waste, looking at distribution storage and primary production around food waste, consumption patterns, what we grow, where we grow it and what we eat? We have to look beyond resource efficiency, technology and optimal production to get us out of this tight space in feeding a growing population and coping with changing consumption patterns.”
Among the main themes touched on by the discussion panel were attaining economies of scale, new biotechnological research and development, support for new farmers, mechanisation, water and soil conservation, protection of wetlands, climate change, future food security, and new opportunities opening up on the African continent.
Farmers have to take advantage of economies of scale to reduce costs and stay competitive. With increased mechanisation it is all about speed and maximising production. The market has also become more global and farmers are much more in tune with global needs. They look intelligently at market needs and at what they have to sell to make a profit in response to what the world wants. 
Thabi Nkosi states that today’s farming environment needs a more business-savvy farmer because farming is a very risky business. Risk management is everything. “You do not know what prices are going to be. You are fully susceptible to the climate. This has produced a farmer who is in touch with what is going on in the world and with global climatic conditions. He has become much more adapted to what the environment is going to do. Farming has become much more resource-intensive. An irrigation farmer has to consider fluctuations in energy prices or what to do in times of drought. Many farmers are hedging the prices they can obtain for their products. Historically farming used to be a family business, but it is only now that we realise that farming is a highly commercial agricultural business.”
A major challenge pointed out by the discussion panel is closing the yield gap between commercial farmers and small-scale farmers. A growing population needs more food. Bigger farmers have managed to attain their yields by taking advantage of new biotechnology, managing their farms as a business and capitalising on new opportunities. Adoption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has increased. Although area size has decreased, yields are substantially higher. Greater focus on research and adopting biotechnology could help smaller farmers get up to speed.
Smaller farmers can be helped to come on board to some extent with government support. Government has provided certain incentives to encourage people to participate in agriculture. One area that can be very useful is providing advisory support. However, there are now fewer agricultural extension officers. By and large the new small-scale farmers do not have much experience in agricultural participation. This gap has to be closed through advisory support, which together with financial support from the government and schemes like MAFISA (Micro Agricultural Financial Institutions of South Africa) can help small-scale farmers to increase production. As a beginner one should not only think of agriculture as working on a farm. One can take another farmer’s product and add value to it, such as packaging it or changing its form from a raw product to a value-added one and finding a market for it. 
Government deserves credit for setting up two departments, the small and medium enterprises department and the rural development department. Few 23-year olds who want to go into agriculture have the capital for machinery, land and marketing. A new farmer will not only create a job for himself but if he is successful probably also for others, and everyone knows how important job creation is as a national goal. Five to fifteen years on, the food production landscape will be difficult if young famers do not enter the farming sector. On average, most of today’s farmers are 65 years old. Young farmers have to come in now. With the right support one can move to another level of agriculture. There is a lot of room for innovative entrepreneurs who are in it for the long term and ready to compete globally to start creating a home for themselves.
On the issue of climate change, they point out that an El Niño event is forecasted for the next season and in future there will be more occurrences of dryer conditions in agriculture. Better risk management and foreseeing events will be essential and irrigation farming will have to increase. Many countries have started to move marginal land out of production, increasing irrigation and looking at where they have comparative advantage. It is likely to happen with South African farmers as well.
The panel highlights the fact that the rest of Africa provides many opportunities for South African farmers. Many South African retailers are already present in other countries on the continent, which provides the South African farming sector with a ready-made foothold and channel for its products. Many African countries are growing at a very high rate. With higher incomes they can afford important goods, most of which will come from South Africa.
We not only have a responsibility as agriculture for South Africa, the panel states, but also the rest of the African continent to consider. We service the entire SADC region with maize production. We have some of the best research facilities in the world. The opportunities are there. The question is whether we can supply enough to keep up with Africa’s growing demand, urbanisation, growing incomes and growing populations.
Kobus Steenekamp points out that the focus in agricultural practice now is on conservation agriculture with farmers moving to zero tillage. Farmers have adopted new technologies, especially bio-technology, helping them to increase production and make farming more sustainable.
One of the biggest risks for famers today, Steenekamp continues, is changing weather patterns. Rains come later than before and disappear in the January-February period. As the planting season starts later, the farmer has to focus more on conserving water in the earlier part of the season, and adopt technologies to help them save water when it rains before the planting season. Farmers have to assume much greater responsibility for their valuable land resources. More and more farmers are moving to biological farming, adding it as a component to their conventional farming practices. Biological farming will be complementary to traditional and modern agricultural practices. It is not a case of either the one or the other.
Some of the new technologies are scale neutral. It will enable farmers with access to smaller pieces of land to use them and exercise better weed and insect control. Although subsistence farmers will not be able to afford the precision farming technologies that are used on a commercial scale, there are various projects to help them increase production. Knowledge transfer over time by commercial farmers to subsistence and small-scale farmers is crucial, making them aware of the best practices, preventing over-grazing that causes soil erosion, loss of very valuable soil resources and ultimately river contamination. Along with organised agriculture, individual commercial farmers and agricultural companies working together with small-scale farmers, the government also has a huge responsibility to involve the small-scale farming sector to ensure sufficient food for the future.
Inge Kotze says there has to be a balance between increased agricultural production and use of natural resources. Less than three percent of South Africa’s soils are highly fertile. Two thirds of our water goes into agricultural irrigation. Agriculture is coming more and more into competition with mining and urbanisation for water resources. “We simply will have to use less to create more in future. Those two thirds of available water will be the maximum that agriculture will be able to access. Technology has given us the efficiency and optimal production, but the real focus now must be on the natural environment on our farmlands. Those systems are really our buffer capacity for dealing with water quality issues, a changing climate and intense weather events, leading to more vulnerability and more uncertainty in this sector. Farmers should understand that they must also manage, protect and maintain their natural systems to increase the resilience and viability of the agricultural sector.”
As Inge Kotze says, there is also a responsibility on the value chain to support the farmer. The farmer is probably South Africa’s most valuable asset. About 80 percent of the land is used for either communal, tribal or commercial agriculture. Water resources, wetland systems and river systems are the arteries that keep the functioning system alive. 
Wetlands are the farmer’s best friends. They are among the most important protection systems against increasing floods, volumes of water and droughts. They serve as filtration and purification systems for water quality. “We must work to compensate farmers and work alongside them to bring wetlands, buffers and river systems back to functional value to manage their water and topsoil runoff into the water systems.
 Farmers play a very critical role in managing their systems, but it is a costly exercise. Many communities are reaping downstream benefits from what farmers are doing upwards at the tributaries and catchments. We must work alongside the farmers to finance some of the activities that go beyond the economic value that they can gain from their land.”
Exciting times lie ahead, the panel concludes. Changes bring opportunities. As soon as the government can finalise the policy framework on land redistribution, it will be further encouragement for farmers to take continued ownership of their land, giving access to land to developing semi-commercial or commercial new-era farmers, who will certainly contribute to the success of South Africa as a farming community. Farmers are willing to play their role and adopt new technologies, and more importantly to contribute to the mentoring programmes in various parts of the country, which are already very successful. These programmes must be expanded to guide the new-era producers to full-scale production.
Looking at the future, farms will continue to get bigger. Bigger farmers will continue to adopt more technology, become more mechanised and more globally competitive. For new farmers to catch up will require financing. Mechanisation is not cheap and they will require some form of credit for which they will need of security in the form of secure land and guaranteed production.
View the full programme on YouTube:
Enquiries / Requests for interviews:
Ronel Botha – Brand Republic (producer)
011 465 0099 / 082 875 3914 
The Nation in Conversation concept was initiated by Senwes three years ago. Following the success of a series of discussion forums at the annual Nampo Harvest Day agricultural trade exhibition, Nation in Conversation has now been extended into a thirteen-part dialogue series broadcast on Business Day Television, Soweto TV and KykNet from September to December 2015. 
Francois Strydom, Managing Director of Senwes, says the discussions are focused on bringing important matters in the agricultural sector to the attention of a wider audience, creating greater cohesiveness, and ensuring a solution-driven approach towards a new dispensation in agriculture. “What happens in agriculture impacts on our nation’s well-being – our ability to access quality and affordable food.”
Nation in Conversation partners: Senwes, AFGRI, Fort Knox, Hinterland, NWK, Nedbank and Monsanto.

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