September 19, 2023

Climate resilience in the agricultural sector

JEANNET CLARK: Climate resilience is defined as the ability of social, economic and ecosystem systems to cope with a hazardous event, trend or disturbance in the existing global climate. This is according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest 2022 position paper for policymakers. In this podcast, the latest in a series on agriculture, we talk to Maluta Netshaulu from Nedbank, senior manager: agriculture, customer value proposition, climate resilience in our agricultural sector.

Maluta, what do you think are the components of a climate-resilient agricultural sector in South Africa?

MALUTA NETSHAULU: To answer your question, we have three components that speak to climate resilience. The first is about sustainable production practices, the second is the adoption of technology and innovation, and last but not least is about sustainable solutions.

JEANNET CLARK: To the right. Can we first dive into sustainable production practices, which you’ve seen change locally and even internationally, if you want to use a few examples over the past two years? I’m particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on regenerative farming practices.

MALUTA NETSHAULU: For a very long time, I think farmers have applied conventional production practices, harvesting the soil and applying tons of fertilizer and lots of water without much concern for the availability of their resources and the impact of the inputs they they put in the ground.

But over the years, due to resource scarcity and pressure from the international community and consumers, we have seen a dramatic shift in these practices towards more sustainable practices that promote sustainable production practices in terms of respect the environment. practical, using less harmful materials in more organic materials that are much more respectful of the soil, water and the environment.

So agriculture has now really changed, but it’s also going in that direction. I’m trying to say that not everyone has moved in that direction, but we’ve seen a lot of farmers move in that direction because it’s not about profitability anymore; it is also about being able to be sustainable in achieving these results.

Then when it comes to some of the big trends, it’s on the production practices that really promote the reduction of carbon sequestration like, for example, when it comes to regenerative agriculture or the conservation agriculture. This is where you will notice that this type of farming promotes agriculture so that at any given time in a year or season, the land is never really left bare.

If you drive the N1 towards Bloemfontein, or even Limpopo for that matter, you might notice during the winter months, or even in other months, after farmers have harvested the land and just prepared, waiting for the next season.

In a sense, as they make these preparations and clear the land from the previous season, it releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and a lot of nutrients are lost as a result, because the land is just bare.

But when it comes to regenerative agriculture, you find that they intercrop, whether we have corn and in between, rows, cover crops, or immediately after harvest, they also make sure that they don’t actually clear the land, but then they Allow [the planting of] other cultures on what’s left on the earth, which really helps, in terms of ecological balance, making sure that for all that’s there, the things that live in the earth, there’s no disturbance, and the soil water content remains good .

And then we see that as they start the new production season, it also saves a lot on soil, chemicals and all those things that ultimately help their bottom line. That’s more the essence, in terms of what conversation or regenerative agriculture is.

JEANNET CLARK: Your colleague John Hudson has made it very clear that farmers here in South Africa need to do more with less. How does the adoption of technology and innovation help in this regard, also helping to build climate resilience?

MALUTA NETSHAULU: I think John said it well. His statement was around “if you think agriculture and technology don’t go together, you’re dead wrong”. This is what we have seen in agriculture. For example, gone are the days when [no technology is used]except in a very smallholder configuration.

But when it comes to commercials and even mega-farmers, from using tractors, from using highly sophisticated machinery, from using irrigation systems, from using things like IoT [the Internet of Things] devices, remote sensing, aerial and drone imagery and all those things, and precision farming – these are very sophisticated technological systems that are used on farms to help the farmer know what’s going on [their] closed. And be able to make better decisions about where to apply what, based on the data received. If it’s aerial imagery, you’re able to spot where there’s stress on your farm; where you need [to pay] Warning.

Some of the comments you receive involve things that you cannot see with the naked eye. So I think it’s critical to be able to act on that data, because by doing so you are then able to mitigate the loss of revenue, or you [are] having to act when it is a bit too late; it could mean that you need to apply more in terms of corrective measures.

This is what technology has done for the industry. It has now become such that it is normal for farmers to use this technology only from their tractors – [whether it’s] a John Deere or Massey Ferguson, or Case, for example, they can simply check from their screen as they work in the field, whether it’s planting or harvesting – to see what’s going on, what the feedback is. ‘they get sensors from this machinery, and be able to act on it. And even then or after to be able to see and say, oh, this is what I managed to harvest on this field, specific to this field, what the reasons are – and then be able to plan accordingly.

So this is where the adoption of technology and innovation has come [mean] when it comes to agriculture.

JEANNET CLARK: Well, I see that even agriculture can’t escape big data, and I guess that helps a lot too in understanding weather patterns and planning for that. But it doesn’t always have to be high tech. There are other sustainable agricultural interventions that can help cope with certain weather events or weather changes. Can you give me some examples?

MALUTA NETSHAULU: Yes, most certainly. When you look at climate change, we see a lot of weather that’s quite erratic, not easy to predict. I’m not talking [about things] like the rain. Let’s talk about things like natural hazards, like excessive wind or hail, or things like freezing in the winter.

So these innovations that exist, for example shade nets or anti-hail nets, because we also know that farmers, especially those who operate in areas where they are very sensitive to these types of natural risks, and they cultivate with very high types of product cultivars. As in the citrus area, we speak of sweet citrus fruits, or in the wine area or the table grape area, or even [about] macadamias by the way, they are able to install these solutions which are also not cheap, to be honest, but they somehow allow them to fight or protect their high value orchards against these natural hazards.

They can also increase the performance of these orchards by 20%, reduce water consumption, reduce fertilizer or nitrogen applications. So at the end of the day, they’re helping farmers use these innovations almost like insurance, especially when it comes to tree growing, insurance is very expensive. Most people can’t afford it and most people don’t take it. So they end up using innovations like shade nets to act as insurance and also help them protect [valuable] production and orchards.

Something it also helps is like cross pollination. If you have table grapes seeded on the other side, next to a seedless [variety]and you have a contract with, say, Woolworths or Checkers, for the seedless [variety]and you have to deliver at the end of this season, if that other seed [variety] some sort of cross-pollination of your contract with no glitches, it will cause you to lose the contract, which may ripple into other issues for you in terms of market access and so on. So by having that netting, you kind of mitigate that risk of cross-pollination and birds eating your crops and so on.

So that’s a very, very good example of the sustainable solutions that farmers are embracing, and they’re seeing the value in their operations.

JEANNET CLARK: You mentioned climate change, and one way to fight climate change is to look at alternative and renewable energy solutions. But why do you think farmers are turning to alternative and renewable energy solutions? Is it always about climate change, or is it sometimes just survival because they can’t necessarily rely on their electricity all the time?

MALUTA NETSHAULU: I think it’s more around the last statement you just mentioned. It is a reliable source of energy. In South Africa, with all the instability and unreliability of the grid for various reasons – it could be load shedding or theft of cables, it could be [a] cable fault, or it could just be system vandalism – if farmers are going to have a lot of downtime and farmers using electricity to power their irrigation systems, to power their milking parlor or to feed their processing plant, this does have a lot of negative impact in terms of profitability. It could even force them to lose their jobs.

So we got to a point where we saw a lot of farmers adopting renewable energy solutions like solar PV [photovoltaics]for example where they will install it to make sure they mitigate the risk of downtime due to those things I mentioned.

So it’s true. We have seen this quite often. Even from Nedbank, we have seen a lot of requests for financing renewable energy installations for our farmers, just to ensure that they are resistant to risks such as load shedding, for example.

JEANNET CLARK: Climate resilience is therefore a subject closely linked to climate change. But even without highlighting this, Southern Africa has always had high rainfall variability. Even in what we would consider a normal year, farmers would benefit from increased climate resilience for the benefit of food production and the South African economy.

We spoke today to Maluta Netshaulu, Senior Manager: Agriculture, Customer Value Proposition, at Nedbank.

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Presented by Nedbank Agri.