On Wednesday I attended the annual Sustainability Week conference, hosted by the city of Tshwane and at the CSIR in Pretoria. The event is geared at preparing cities in South Africa to become more climate resilient through implementing green building practices, and embracing renewable energy in development planning.
I attended a seminar on food security. The speakers covered a wide range of topics: drought response policy; practical tools for food gardens; and the importance of soil health in conservation agriculture. I took some notes during the presentations. This is what I remember.
- “Soil health is the heart of sustainable agriculture” – Dr Hendrik Smith
A scientist with Grain SA and the Maize Trust, Dr Smith is passionate about healthy soil.
And according to him, existing agricultural systems in South Africa are being tested by climate change. Yield predictions for Africa don’t look good.
“Indicators for agriculture are that there will be more heat waves and drought, and more heavy rainfall events.”
The grain sector is also responsible for the loss of healthy soil.
“We lose two to three tons of soil for every ton of maize we produce.”
But it’s not all bad news.
“There’s a golden opportunity for farmers to bring carbon back into the soil where it belongs,” said Smith.
If farmers can better understand soil and put life back into it, it can be sustained.
“We need to design agriculture systems by mimicking nature.”
The major principles for this to happen include disturbing soil as little as possible, introducing a diversity of plants in crop cover and mulching.
- “Urban areas are the biggest areas for food consumption that the rural areas have to produce” – Prof. Willie Breytenbach
Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Stellenbosch University Prof. Breytenbach spoke about whether or not agriculture is Africa’s new gold. A threat to food security but also an opportunity for agricultural entrepreneurs is feeding the growing number of people moving to cities.
Urbanisation and scarce food supply is a problem across the megacities in Africa.
“Lagos, the biggest city in Africa, is home to 21 million. With so many people who need to eat, food is expensive,” he said.
Breytenbach said that women are major role-players in subsistence farming in Africa. If credit can be made available to them, it will help to meet the demand for produce in urban areas.
- “Within every problem lies a solution, that’s what nature gives us” – Robyn Hills
A programme manager at Food and Trees for Africa, Robyn Hills gave an inspiring presentation, showcasing food garden projects around the country.
Hills showed a project in Matatiele where there was too much grass, so it was cut down and used as mulch.
She also spoke passionately about how food gardens in schools are demonstration grounds and play a vital role in nature education. The food garden can also be a classroom, where children practice maths and geometry by having to measure garden beds.
In the community gardens, working with young people is not just about providing them with skills and work experience.
“Try and employ youth so they learn about climate change mitigation,” she said.
A problem of too many rocks in the ground can also provide a solution to pest control.
“Create a pile of rocks and stones at the edge of your garden, lizards will live there and hunt the bugs at night,” she said.
- “We need to move from response and relief to risk reduction and resilience” – Stephanie Midgley
An academic and consultant in the Western Cape, Stephanie Midgley gave some useful insights on how the agricultural sector in the province responded to the recent drought, as part of the SmartAgri project.
Two factors made the drought worse than expected, the stronger El Niño due to the impact of warming and overstating water infrastructure.
She said many farmers they engaged with only realised the severity of the drought when it was too late.
“We need to stop responding to events as they come along, spending a lot of money and forgetting about it. Then the next drought begins and we start all over again,” she said.
Midgley said even though the province has received some rains, many poor farmers were still in a vulnerable position.
Going forward, she said that government had a key role in creating a cooperative and supportive environment to develop resilience to extreme weather events and help farmers adapt sooner.
- “We need to swallow an alarm clock because we don’t have much time left before things are going to start falling apart” – Dr Hendrik Smith
The final quote I will remember is from the presentation from Dr Smith. He said, “We need to swallow an alarm clock,” in the context of getting commercial farmers to adopt conservation agriculture to sustain good soil health.
But for me, this quote sums up how we should all react to the threats climate change is confronting us with. Most importantly in terms of adapting to become more resilient to extreme weather events, and reducing the threat to food security.
Whether it’s water saving measures at home, recycling, or trying to grow our own food, every bit counts.