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Policy on farming in Africa ignores research

WORKING as an economist in the agricultural sector can be very frustrating. I often function between two worlds: the policy environment and the realm of information and analytics.

I am often astounded by how little attention is paid by agricultural policy-makers to information and analytics, a crucial element in conducting agricultural economics in an orderly manner.

This frustration is not unique to SA. Not long ago, in conversation with an Ethiopian friend on food security in Africa, his frustration seeped through. Working for an Addis Ababa-based nongovernmental organisation focusing on agriculture, he vented his frustration about the challenges of working on regional food security issues with policy makers. They, and other relevant groups, seem to turn a deaf ear whenever new strategies are recommended.

I could relate to his frustration, particularly when considered in the context of the future of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the years, a number of research studies have set out blueprints for achieving agriculture-led growth in the region. However, there seems to be little, if any, interest in following the policy suggestions flowing from the research.

A recent study by Michigan State University and Stellenbosch University agricultural economists Thom Jayne and Lulama Ndibongo-Traub, identified seven challenges to which African policy-makers need to respond if they are to achieve agriculture-led growth, focusing strongly on developing rural agricultural markets. These challenges cover areas from job creation and land policy to youth involvement, the telecommunications revolution, macroeconomic management, soil management and climate variability.

Agriculture can contribute significantly to job creation, from farming to the delivery of services.

To achieve this, government intervention is essential, specifically investment in infrastructure to unlock the sector’s potential in rural areas and increase profitability.

The lack of youth involvement in the sector is a serious concern that agricultural policy makers and role players need to focus on. About 45% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is below the age of 15, while farmers in the region are ageing (the average age of a farmer in SA is 62). There is a dire need for education on the role agriculture plays in the economy, to remind young people about the value of the sector, but more importantly, to change the notion that agriculture is just a form of livelihood. It should be viewed as a business, where being a farmer is being a businessman.

Land policy has for some time been viewed as a challenging factor in unlocking the sector’s productivity. Most rural areas in Africa operate under communal or state-owned land systems, making it difficult to use land as collateral to obtain finance from the banks.

One of the most important areas influencing the profitability of Africa’s agricultural sector is macroeconomic management. This management influences currency rates, which in turn influence the prices paid for imports of agricultural inputs. For example, in SA, the agricultural sector imports roughly 80% of its fertiliser requirement, which on average accounts for 35% of grain-production costs. A stable currency assists farmers in planning for the upcoming production season and keeps input costs reasonable.

Agriculture remains a key sector for achieving economic growth and transformation in sub-Saharan Africa. Governments across the region are starting to show an active interest in agricultural development, with much emphasis in most countries being placed on increasing production, farmer-training programmes and seed development.

However, by attending to the aforementioned challenges, rural people’s livelihoods could be improved across the region.

Source: bdlive


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Along South Africa’s East Coast, Locals Take On Mining Industry

A 14-mile stretch of sand dunes along South Africa’s breathtaking east coast is the battleground between big mining interests and the local community. The dunes hide a wealth of titanium.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Mining is a mainstay of South Africa’s economy. It’s also been a curse, claiming lives and spoiling the environment. An Australian mining company has been trying to get a license to dig an open pit mine on the country’s remote east coast. The locals, or the Amadiba people, have been fighting against it for a decade. Sarah Birnbaum has the story of a traditional community willing to die to keep its land.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

SARAH BIRNBAUM, BYLINE: Bazooka Radebe campaigned fiercely to stop the Australian mining company MRC from mining on his people’s land. In March, he was gunned down by men dressed as police officers. Thousands of people from across the country have made their way over dirt roads to the funeral on Radebe’s homestead. Pallbearers weave through the crowd carrying his casket while members of his church sing funeral dirges in Xhosa.

Nonhle Mbthuma was in the anti-mining activist group, the Amadiba Crisis Committee, with Radebe. She looks tired and shaken. She says Radebe called her an hour before he died to tell her that his name was on top of a hit list and she was number two.

NONHLE MBTHUMA: When I speak to him he said, hey, guys, our struggle is bigger than we thought. Now, Nonhle, you need to watch your back.

BIRNBAUM: Violence against anti-mining activists in the Amadiba area has been ramping up. In 2003, headman Mandoda Ndovela was murdered after speaking out against the mine. In December, community members who opposed the mine were beaten with clubs and bush knives. Mbthuma says she and her community will die to protect the land.

MBTHUMA: It’s our mother Earth to us. It’s holding us. If we let the land go, that means we lose the identity, the roots, because where you don’t have a land, you don’t even know who you are.

BIRNBAUM: At stake is 14 miles of sand dunes on what’s called the wild coast, a stunningly beautiful stretch along South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)

BIRNBAUM: The mining company MRC says underneath the sand is one of the world’s largest deposits of titanium. The company has applied for mining rights from the government. The project will require digging a huge pit mine and building infrastructure like roads, pipelines, storage facilities and electricity pylons up and down this unspoiled area.

Now, there’s the ocean, sand dunes and grassy hills with clusters of huts here and there. There are a few paved roads, no running water, no electricity. It’s the tribal land of about 300 or so families. They say the mining development threatens to destroy their way of life and undermine their livelihood, which revolves around subsistence farming. Nonhle Mbthuma.

MBTHUMA: We use land for everything – for farming, livestock, buried people. Everything.

BIRNBAUM: She says the Amadiba have been defending this land against outside development for generations. In the 1960s, when the apartheid government tried to group the scattered homesteads here into villages, fence off the grazing land and arable plots and impose quotas on livestock, the community revolted in what’s known in history books as the Pondo revolt. Mbthuma sees her fight against mining as a continuation of that anti-apartheid struggle.

MBTHUMA: My own grandfather, he was involved during the Pondo revolt. Now, I’m still following the steps of my forefathers.

BIRNBAUM: The CEO of the mining company, Mark Caruso, has refused NPR’s requests for interviews, but he briefly appeared of South Africa’s Talk Radio 702. He says the company is not involved at all in intimidation of activists or in the murder of Bazooka Radebe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK CARUSO: The company has continued to support non-confrontation. It has continued to act within the law and with restraint in relation to inciting any further violence.

BIRNBAUM: Caruso insists the majority of the community wants the mining because it will deliver over 600 jobs. The application for mineral rights is still pending, and the Department of Mineral Resources says it’s not prepared to take a position yet. But protesters like Mbthuma say they’ll keep fighting no matter what. For NPR News, I’m Sarah Birnbaum in Mdtaya, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Source: npr


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WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR SOUTH AFRICAN OSTRICH FARM WORKERS?

A series of bird flu outbreaks has placed South Africa’s renowned ostrich farming industry under pressure – and it’s frontline farm labourers who are most at risk.

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For more than 150 years, South Africa has enjoyed a world leading position as a producer of ostrich eggs, feathers, leather, oil and meat of the highest quality.

At its peak in 2009, South Africa accounted for 75 per cent of global ostrich products. Today, the business is worth over 1.2 billion rand (US$73 million) and employs as many as 50,000 people.

But a nightmare scenario could be brewing for the mainly low-skilled farm labourers who toil to rear, slaughter and refine ostrich by-products for export.

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FARM TO SCHOOL PROGRAMS INVEST IN FUTURE OF OUR CHILDREN AND OUR FAMILY FARMERS

Farm to school programs are a win for kids, farmers, and communities. They empower our children and their families by informing them about their food system and giving them the tools and confidence to make healthy choices. At the same time they support local farmers financially by connecting them to new market opportunities.

On Tuesday, March 15, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the final results of their 2015 Farm to School Census. The census was great news for farm to school programs and for farmers, showing that the programs have had huge successes all across the country.

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Big Impacts for Farmers and Students

In surveying over 18,000 school districts across the country, census shows definitively that farm to school programs result in increased market opportunities for local farmers.  Some 42 percent of the school districts that responded to the survey reported that they hosted farm to school programs as of the 2014-2015 school year. According to the census local food purchasing from these school districts translated into nearly $800 million spent on local food during the 2013-2014 school year.

Farm to school programs are not only making big impacts now for the farmers, students and communities they serve, they’re poised for even more growth in the future.

Of the schools surveyed, 16 percent said that they plan to start programs in the future, and 46 percent of school districts currently sourcing from local producers report that they plan to buy even more local food in future school years.

Estimates from the USDA predict that the buying power of new farm to school programs, combined with pledged increases from current school districts, could result in an additional $350 million for family farmers. All together the economic impact of these current and future programs could top $1 billion according to USDA estimates.

Farm to school programs not only create new economic opportunities for farmers, they invest in the future of our children by giving them access to healthy, local foods and gardening and farm-based learning opportunities. By connecting students to agriculture, farm to school programs connect children and their families to a healthier way of eating both for themselves, and for the environment.

The Farm to School Census highlights the manifold social impacts and benefits of farm to school programs:

  • 38 percent of surveyed school districts indicated increased support from parents and the community for healthier school meals after introducing farm to school programs
  • 28 percent reported improved acceptance of healthier school meals by their students
  • 21 percent reported lower school meal program costs
  • 18 percent reported reduced plate waste, and
  • 17 percent indicated increased school meal program participation.

“One in a Melon”

To recognize outstanding school districts the USDA Farm to School Program is holding a contest in conjunction with the Farm to School

Census release, wherein school districts can win USDA’s coveted “One in a Melon” award.

Now through April 15, USDA will be accepting nominations through their website from parents, students, teachers, farmers and other community members for their favorite farm to school programs. Awards will be announced before the end of school year, with one district from each state winning!

See how your school district is doing and vote for your school district to win a “One in a Melon” award here.

The Farm to School Program: Past, Present & Future

Thanks to the leadership of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our congressional champions the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) included, for the first time, mandatory funding of $5 million per year for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program. The Farm to School Grant Program has played an important role in supporting the growth of farm to school programs nationwide, as highlighted through the census.

Congress is currently going through the process of renewing authorization and funding for all school meal programs, including the USDA Farm to School Grant program, through the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR). CNR expired September 30, 2015, which means Congress is now significantly behind in reauthorizing several critical nutrition, anti-hunger, and education programs for our nation’s children.

NSAC is currently working with our partners at the National Farm to School Network, along with key congressional champions, to encourage Congress to pass a CNR package with a robust Farm to School Grant Program expeditiously.

Four months after the last iteration of CNR expired, on January 20, the Senate Agriculture Committee took a critical step forward by unanimously voting their new version of the bill out of committee. Titled “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016”, the Senate committee bill includes an increase of $5 million in annual grant funding for the Farm to School Grant Program (from $5 to $10 million per year), which would significantly help school meal programs to increase local food purchases and expand educational food and agriculture activities.

The House Education and Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over CNR in the House, has yet to release or consider in committee their own version of the bill. However, NSAC has it under good authority that staff and committee members are in the process of writing their version of the bill, which they have indicated they plan to mark-up in committee in the near future.

NSAC has been actively urging House Education and Workforce Committee members and staff to follow the Senate’s lead and submit a robust CNR that supports our children and our family farmers, including, of course, a strong Farm to School grant program.

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Source: sustainableagriculture


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In Climate Talks, Learn from the Real Climate Change Heroes

World leaders in Paris are in the midst of critical climate negotiations toward the first enforceable agreement in two decades. We hope that two giant questions–too often missed or downplayed–will be a focus:

  Can our food system–now speeding climate change while leaving a quarter of humanity suffering nutritional deprivation–reverse course?
  Instead of a climate curse, can our food system become part of the climate cure, while at the same time producing nutritious food that’s accessible to the world’s poorest people?

Big changes! But evidence of their possibility mounts. First, however, the big obstacles.

Our industrializing food system–from land to landfill–has become a big climate troublemaker, estimated to account for up to 29 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Most startling, these emissions are growing so fast that, if they continue at current rates, in thirty-five years those from our food system alone could nearly reach the safe target set for all greenhouse gas emissions.

To get a fix on how big the problem is, take in these fast facts:

  Agriculture alone contributes nearly a fifth of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions; and industrial agriculture (that using manufactured inputs) releases two to three times more carbon dioxide per unit of land than does organic farming.

  Since the industrial era began, humans have removed a third of the Earth’s carbon-absorbing forest cover largely to grow crops, a shift that can reduce soil carbon per unit of land by more than 40 percent. That’s an area roughly the size of South America. Increasingly, that land is growing feed or fuel, not the basic foods of the planet’s poor majorities.

  Soils treated with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers hold about 30 percent less organic carbon compared to organically managed soils.

The current model of industrial agriculture–only about 70 years old–has already proven to be a dead end. But, by adopting ecological practices, farming would emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions and store more carbon.

And now to my second question–food accessibility for those who most need it? Ecological practices free farmers from expensive corporate-controlled inputs, so they especially benefit small-scale farmers and farmworkers, who also are the majority of hungry people. Some of these beneficial practices are:

Composting–returning to the soil decaying organic material from plant and animal wastes. Just one ton of organic material can result in storing almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Agroforestry –integrating trees on farms. It improves crop productivity and yields additional food and fodder from the trees. Globally, says the World Bank, among a range of ecological farming practices, “agroforestry by far has the highest sequestration potentials.” One study
found that this approach in the EU, combined with other ecological farming practices, has the technical potential to sequester GHGs equivalent to 37 percent of its 2007 emissions.

Source: organicconsumers


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Africa in need of sustainable agricultural production

The lack of interest in farming among young rural people is also a risk to consider when it comes to Africa’s agricultural landscape.
Africa is in dire need of transforming its agricultural sector. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, agricultural production needs to increase 60% by 2050 to keep up with the expected demand for food*. These pressing issues will be discussed at the thought-provoking and highly anticipated Food Security Seminar taking place on 24 June 2015 during Sustainability Week at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria.
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Political instability, limited access to resources and funding, poverty, skills shortages and a changing climate are just some of the challenging factors impacting food security in Africa. The lack of interest in farming among young rural people is also a risk to consider when it comes to Africa’s agricultural landscape. Thought leaders and experts in the field of food security, agriculture and fisheries will share the latest thinking and best practice in the changing face of this industry during Sustainability Week, which will take place on 24 June 2015 at the CSIR.

Four interactive sessions will contribute to the formulation of consensus on the best course for African countries in the food security, agriculture and fisheries sectors. The first session will focus on climate change mitigation and adaption where Inge Kotze, Senior Manager for Sustainable Agriculture at the World Wide Fund for Nature – South Africa’s (WWF-SA) will define the issues of climate change and agriculture. The session will close with a panel discussion addressing key actions to mitigate primary causes of emissions and how to adapt to inevitable changes in the sector.

“There is an urgent need for the world’s farmers to be empowered to produce more food per unit of land, water and agrochemicals, while confronting widespread physical resource scarcity, a changing climate, and rapidly increasing input costs,” says Kotze.

Biodiversity and productivity in land use will be the theme for the second session where Jan Coetzee, Project Extension Officer at The South African Breweries (SAB) will enlighten attendees with a case study on better barley, better beer. This session will ultimately address the big question of whether intensive farming work can co-exist sustainably with the local biodiversity to ensure conservation and the ongoing supply of ecological services.

During the household food security session, freelance science writer Leonie Joubert will shed light on what food security really means. Paul Barker from Here We Grow Again will speak about the direct impact food gardens have on food security. The panel discussion will round off this session by framing the required policy and infrastructure foundations to enable broad-based urban farming.

The final compelling session will address rural poverty by stimulating the rural economy. Speakers will explore how to convert subsistence farmers into successful commercial farmers to extract the economic potential of land. The session will also delve into Afrocentric labour intensive approaches to improve productivity and uplift rural communities.

“A company such as BASF can play a defining role in addressing the challenges facing our planet, including those of energy and food resources, as well as urban living,” says Joan-Maria Garcia-Girona, Vice-President and Managing Director of BASF South Africa and Sub-Sahara.  “In 2050, the world’s population will reach nine billion with 70% of the people living in cities. Resources are already scarce and we have only reached almost seven billion people. To feed nine billion people in 2050, we will need twice as much food as today. Innovation in agriculture is vital to address the gap between food demand and supply. We at BASF have a 150 year legacy of providing farmers with innovative solutions to protect crops and improve sustainable agricultural production.”

The Food Security Seminar, sponsored by Nedbank and BASF forms part of the larger Sustainability Week, organised by alive2green, which runs from 23 to 28 June 2015. Associate sponsors of the Food Security Seminar include: Participate Technologies, Massmart and Backsberg Estate Cellars.

Source: wecanchange


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We need regenerative farming, not geoengineering

Geoengineering has been back in the news recently after the US National Research Council endorsed a proposal to envelop the planet in a layer of sulphate aerosols to reduce solar radiation and cool the atmosphere.

The proposal has been widely criticised for possible unintended consequences, such as ozone depletion, ocean acidification and reduced rainfall in the tropics. Perhaps even more troubling, geoengineering is a technological fix that leaves the economic and industrial system causing climate change untouched.

The mindset behind geoengineering stands in sharp contrast to an emerging ecological, systems approach taking shape in the form of regenerative agriculture. More than a mere alternative strategy, regenerative agriculture represents a fundamental shift in our culture’s relationship to nature.

Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.

But these methods are slow, expensive and impractical in feeding a growing population, right?

Wrong. While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarterof current emissions.

Estimates of the total potential impact vary. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University argues that desertified and otherwise degraded soils could sequester up to 3bn tons of carbon per year (equal to 11bn tons of CO2, or nearly one third of current emissions). Other experts foresee even greater potential. According to research at the Rodale Institute, if instituted universally, organic regenerative techniques practiced on cultivated land could offset over 40% of global emissions, while practicing them on pasture land could offset 71%.

That adds up to land-based CO2 reduction of over 100% of current emissions – and that doesn’t even include reforestation and afforestation, which could offset another 10-15%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course, none of this is license to perpetuate a fossil fuel infrastructure, since there is an eventual limit to the amount of carbon that soil and biomass can store.

Working with nature

Given that they are better even from purely commercial considerations, why haven’t regenerative practices spread more quickly? An answer commonly offered by farmers themselves is that “people are slow to change.” Maybe so, but in this case there is more to it than that. Regenerative agriculture represents more than a shift of practices. It is also a shift in paradigm and in our basic relationship to nature – as a comparison with geoengineering highlights.

First, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it. As Ray Archuleta, a soil-health specialist at the USDA, puts it, “We want to go away from control and command agriculture. We should farm in nature’s image.” In contrast, geoengineering seeks to take our centuries-long domination of nature to a new extreme, making the entire planet an object of manipulation.

Second, regenerative agriculture is a departure from linear thinking and its control of variables through mechanical and chemical means. It values the diversity of polycultures, in which animals and plants form a complex, symbiotic, robust system. Geoengineering, on the other hand, ignores the law of unintended consequences that plagues any attempt to engineer a highly nonlinear system. It exemplifies linear thinking: if the atmosphere is too warm, add a cooling factor. But who knows what will happen?

Third, regenerative agriculture seeks to address the deep basis of ecological health: the soil. It sees low fertility, runoff and other problems as symptoms, not the root problem. Geoengineering, on the other hand, addresses the symptom – global warming – while leaving the cause untouched.

There is no quick fix

Unlike geoengineering’s quick fix, regenerative agriculture cannot be implemented at scale without deep cultural changes. We must turn away from an attitude of nature-as-engineering-object to one of humble partnership. Whereas geoengineering is a global solution that feeds the logic of centralisation and the economics of globalism, regeneration of soil and forests is fundamentally local: forest by forest, farm by farm. These are not generic solutions, because the requirements of the land are unique to each place. Unsurprisingly, they are typically more labour-intensive than conventional practices, because they require a direct, intimate relationship to the land.

Ultimately, climate change challenges us to rethink our long-standing separation from nature in which we think we can endlessly engineer our way out of the damage we have caused. It is calling us back to our biophilia, our love of nature and of life, our desire to care for all beings whether or not they make greenhouse gas numbers go up or down.

Geoengineering, beyond its catastrophic risks, is an attempt to avoid that call, to extend the mindset of domination and control to new extremes, and to prolong an economy of overconsumption a few years longer. It is time to fall in love with the land, the soil, and the trees, to halt their destruction and to serve their restoration. It is time for agricultural policy and practice to become aligned with regeneration.

Source: The Guardian


 

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Can Bt maize improve South African smallholder agriculture?

Maize is the major staple crop in many parts of Africa. Bt maize is the only commercialised genetically modified (GM) food crop in the continent and has been cultivated in South Africa since 2001 through public and private programmes.

Bt maize produces insecticidal proteins that provide resistance to the African maize stem borer (Busseola fusca) and the Chilo borer (Chilo partellus), two pests that cause significant yield losses.

There is intense debate about the role of genetically modified (GM) food crops in combatting low yields and food insecurity amongst smallholders in Africa. Bt maize is still the only commercialised GM food crop in Africa and thus provides an unique opportunity for an empirical evaluation on this matter.

Only African country to grow Bt maize

South Africa is the only country in Africa where farmers grow Bt maize. South African smallholders have been introduced to Bt maize through a number of private enterprise interventions and government programmes since 2001. Scientific publications on the effects of Bt maize on South African smallholders, from socioeconomic and ecological perspectives, are now starting to accumulate.

Bt maize produces insecticidal proteins that provide resistance to the African maize stem borer (Busseola fusca) and the Chilo borer (Chilo partellus) which can cause significant yield losses in low-input African smallholder systems. As maize is the dominant staple crop in Africa, and stem borer damage is a significant production problem to many African smallholders, Bt maize could have substantial positive impacts on the livelihoods and food security of smallholders.

In this commentary, we argue, however, that the fact that Bt maize was originally developed for use in large-scale capital intensive farming is still reflected in its functioning, which currently results in it being of limited use to smallholders. In addition, the regulatory context in which Bt maize was introduced in South Africa, and the lack of information provided to smallholders with the introduction of Bt maize, further reduce the current possibility of smallholders benefitting from it.

As an alternative, we see positive progress in public–private initiatives to develop new maize varieties, specifically for smallholders’ preferences and circumstances, which, we argue, show greater potential to improve food security in smallholders’ contexts.

Economic risk of adoption – much more expensive

The first aspect which negatively impacts on the possibility of Bt maize to be of benefit to smallholders is the economic risk that its adoption entails. To date, Bt maize seed has been supplied to smallholders through government-sponsored interventions – either for free or at greatly subsidised rates; smallholders therefore have not yet experienced the real costs of the seed.

Bt maize is currently sold at about double the price of popular non-GM hybrids and five times that of the price of popular open pollinated varieties (OPVs). Despite the high prices, some economic studies on Bt maize have reported that, by averaging over a number of years, smallholders can benefit from adopting Bt maize compared with planting conventional hybrids. However, stem borer pressure is highly variable between seasons; therefore during years and at sites that experience low insect pressure, the economic benefit of planting Bt maize can be negative.

Resource-constrained smallholders who do not have an economic buffer are not able to absorb losses in years for which the cost of Bt maize seed does not pay off.

Further reinforcing economic risk taking, currently commercialised Bt maize varieties are developed to give high yields under good agricultural conditions (sufficient and timely rain, fertilisation and good storage conditions).

Local hybrids outperform the GM ones

Smallholders often do not have the economy to provide such an optimal farm environment, and commonly farm on lands that are less suited for agriculture. As a result, planting currently available varieties of Bt maize entails the risk that input costs will not be covered within any one year. Indeed, studies on Bt maize in South Africa indicate that commercial varieties into which the Bt trait is introduced are outperformed by locally used non-GM hybrids and OPVs, which are better adapted to smallholders’ agro-ecologies, fluctuations in rainfall and suboptimal storage conditions.

Other countries, such as India, China and Argentina, which report higher adoption of Bt crops by smallholders, have less monopolistic seed markets and lower prices for GM seed than South Africa does, and, as a result of lower regulatory control on GM crops, the Bt traits have also to a greater extent been incorporated into locally suited varieties. It must also be noted, however, that the lower regulatory control of GM crops in these countries has simultaneously led to the marketing of seed of dubious quality, which negatively affects farmers.

Lack of transfer of information on Bt maize is found to be a key obstacle for successful adoption by smallholders. To successfully adopt Bt maize, farmers must be informed that it provides resistance to stem borers; and, for the sake of preserving the stem borer resistance, they need to be taught to plant a refuge of non-Bt maize next to their Bt crop. This refuge is provided by planting a specified area of non-Bt hybrids with the Bt crop, thereby providing feeding grounds for stem borers. In South Africa today, the main information channel on Bt crops to smallholders is through the private sector (seed companies and local seed retailers).

Jacobson and Myhr reported from the Eastern Cape Province that the information days on GM crops held by seed companies were insufficient for transferring all the necessary information and that the local seed retailers largely lacked the ability to transfer information on GM crops. We have recently witnessed a similar situation in the Limpopo Province where Bt and Roundup Ready maize is about to be rolled out to smallholders through a government-funded programme, while seed retailers and local government authorities lack sufficient information on GM crops.

Lack of information leads to faulty planting

Research shows that as a result of the current flaws in how information on Bt maize is transferred to smallholders, many smallholders planting Bt maize are not fully aware of what makes it different from other hybrid maize; and they often do not understand the purpose of refugia, nor comply with the demand to plant them. (To some extent, the lack of compliance with refugia plantings also applies to large commercial South African farmers).

Regulations regarding Bt maize in South Africa also currently obstruct smallholders from fully benefitting. These regulations apply both to the patents for GM crops and the biosafety management practices that come with planting GM crops in South Africa. Both forms of regulation result in farmers not being allowed to recycle GM seed. While hybrid seed in general is unsuitable for recycling because of yield drop, resource-constrained smallholders frequently use the possibility of recycling seed to be able to plant in years for which the budget does not allow for the purchase of new seed.

In summary, current Bt maize varieties in South Africa are expensive, are not suited to planting in suboptimal agricultural environments and come with regulations that smallholders do not understand or with which they do not agree. Whilst some of these problems can be remedied, there are cheaper alternatives available that are more attuned both to smallholders’ agro-ecologies and to their farming practices.

The South African government is currently, through the Agricultural Research Council – Grain Crops Institute (ARC-GCI), promoting the development and certification of maize OPVs suited to smallholder conditions and practices. The ARC-GCI is working in collaboration with the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT), initially through the Southern African Drought and Low Soil Fertility Project, and now through a breeding programme called Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa. These initiatives are working closely with smallholders and have resulted in the registration of a number of stress-tolerant maize OPVs on the South African Variety List.

In addition to drought and low soil nitrogen tolerance, the varieties also possess such desirable traits as resistance to major maize diseases (e.g. turcicum leaf blight and grey leaf spot), superior tolerance to smallholders’ storage conditions, early maturation and suitability for home processing. These are features of maize that are repeatedly highlighted as important by smallholders in southern Africa.

As a consequence of the projected increase in moisture stress because of climate change, these varieties, and continued efforts to produce them, can also be expected to substantially contribute to food security in future. Smallholder farmers in the Limpopo Province have already adopted some of these varieties, and are currently growing and marketing certified seed of ZM 1421, ZM 1521 and ZM 1523. In the Eastern Cape Province, some of the OPVs showed very stable performance across different stress-prone environments and seasons, and produced yields that were not significantly different from hybrids.

Zero seed costs can be realised for some seasons, because of the option of recycling seed of OPVs without the yield penalty associated with recycling hybrids.

We argue that government money would be better spent on supporting further development and spread of these less costly stress-tolerant maize OPVs to smallholders which, we argue, have better prospects for increasing and stabilising smallholders’ maize yields in economically sustainable ways.

Source: Green Times 


 

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Upstream and downstream water use in agriculture – a fine balancing act

By: Lani Botha

Green Business Journal 9 (2013)

Eye-watering reflections on agriculture and H2O

Increasingly aggressive competition in the modern commercial agricultural marketplace vies with anecdotal evidence that traditional and small-scale co-operative farming should not be abolished. As water shortages add pressure, the upstream and downstream industry impacts on agriculture are also becoming a hot button begging for bridging collaboration among resource competitors.

Although less than a third of the planet’s freshwater is available to sustain life on earth – the remaining two-thirds being on ice at the poles, water cooler exchanges about H2O scarcity have not yet reached the level of popularity they deserve.

Industry, on the other hand, is acutely aware of how the uneven surface distribution of this constant affects not only the bottom line, but also the sustainability of mining, agriculture and manufacturing futures.

Eye-watering predictions

Sunny South Africa, meted out less than half earth’s 985 millimetres of rainfall annually, is water-stressed – increasingly so as you move west. Adding a tinge of rouge to this bleak picture, the warming planet will amplify floods and droughts, higher evaporation rates and soil degradation.

While South Africa carries an extensive albeit ageing system of water catchment, damming and man-made transfer tributaries, freshwater quality labours under swelling pollution, wetland and river catchment abolition, and deforestation – as mining, agriculture, manufacturing and energy companies scramble to meet the diverse demands of Africa’s growth trajectory amid urbanisation.

When I attended the Gauteng Water Summit in Johannesburg pre-COP17, the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs confirmed that 2015 would be the year that Gauteng water demand would outstrip supply, while in 2025 the buck would stop (drinking) in the rest of the country.

Although about 36% more South Africans can access potable water today as opposed to 1994, a hazardously similar percentage
of our water is today unaccounted for – that is, R11 billion or half the water in the Vaal dam wasted annually. In a country where we spend one-and-a-half times more on clothing than on education, with a corresponding premium on DStv subscription over retirement annuities, a shift in thinking to conservation wisdom means a shift in attitude rather than amplitude.

Same issues, different industry

Resource cost and supply reliability, the pace of technology advances and knowledge transfer, worker rights and compensation, waste management and regeneration, and fluctuating market demographics play devil’s advocate across industries heavily reliant on one another for stability.

The trick here is for each industry to invest now in the latest clean and resource-efficient technologies available to market – to ensure their operations do not affect each other adversely. After all, industries are competing for the same scarce resources, while time is agile and balance the golden mean.

Also dominating dialogue at the country’s first Industrial Resource Efficiency Conference earlier this year, cleaner production and improved resource use needs to be balanced with employment creation if we are to ensure South Africa’s sustainable global competitiveness.

Food for thought: yielding the axe

Although the US department of Agriculture’s latest World Agricultural Production report puts South African commercial agriculture productivity safely ahead of our sub-Saharan cousins, we are far behind the yields per hectare achieved further up the Continent and in the European Union. Aside from output per hectare, our productivity is also benchmarked against capital, labour, fertilizers, irrigation, fuel, access to markets and insurance.

Interdependence: agriculture and water

Agriculture including irrigation requires 60% of the country’s water resources, while mining/industrial and urban/domestic users each require only a tenth of our precious water reserves – the remaining fifth in environmental application, the Water Research Commission reports. To make common sense of agriculture’s mammoth share, consider that affluent households spend nearly half their water just on watering the garden.

Although downstream users may use substantially less water, the irreversible damage of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), effluent discharge (especially from non-compliant Waste Water Treatment Works) and inefficient distribution systems highlight the murky fact that water services can’t be provided without clean water resources.

However, the management of our water resources (rivers, dams, wetlands and groundwater) and water services (access to potable water and sanitation) are dealt with separately in the Constitution and legislation – and perhaps therein lies the problem.

Tomorrow’s ‘hydrogarchs’

Rand Water alone provides 45% of the South African headcount and 60% of the economy with water it sells to local authorities, mines and factories, distributed over an 18 000km2 area that includes Gauteng, parts of Mpumalanga, the North West, Free State and Limpopo Provinces. Indirectly, this supplies 12 million homes, schools and businesses with clean water.

As chief water consumers, farming and agroprocessing communities are natural water custodians. Poorly operated and overextended wastewater treatment works hold material risk for farmers, as water becomes unfit for irrigation, recreational or livestock watering uses, which directly and severely impacts downstream users.

Conversely, commercial farming increases soil erosion through ploughing, overgrazing, logging and road building – creating murky water and raised salt and mineral content; while fertiliser use compounds nitrate and phosphate levels – resulting in algae blooms and eutrophication, and the downstream harm in pesticides.

Upstream, pollution due to industry chemical, consumer sewage, mining waste and infrastructure breakdown related to urbanisation and industrialisation adversely affect the pH, colour and murkiness, temperature, as well as nutrient, mineral and salt content of water sorely needed for agricultural use.

Whose problem is it anyway?

Poor water management in the North West Province Water this year afflicted 237 local authorities and was brought on by a high concentration of industries and factories with a correspondingly high concentrated water demand – which brings me back to the importance of a balanced approach.

In the Province, business was left to mop up a problem that rightfully belonged to a District Council (water management) and Municipality (distribution).

While industry, climate change and management inefficiencies vie for blame, the truth is alternative decentralised solutions need to be unearthed without delay. Because among the millions affected by the NWP crisis are subsistence farmers, already dealing with the pinch of more frequent droughts of the past two decades, which not only depletes their livestock but also exacerbates stock theft, veld fires and animal diseases.

Urban tolling crisis

Potchefstroom residents had to survive on 40 litres of water each earlier this year (2013), while metropolitan municipality Ekurhuleni’s 3 million residents receive 340 million kilolitres annually – yet the City will spend an additional R1.3 billion over the next decade just to halve its water waste!

Fair trade: a dietary or subsistence issue?

A decade-old Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) report identified sugar cane, rice, cotton and wheat as the world’s ‘thirstiest’ crops, accounting for 58% of the world’s irrigated farmland. Yet, half the world depends on rice as food and income source, cotton is a vital cash crop for African, Asian and Latin American SMEs, and sugar is too lucrative a cash cow for the EU and US to pass up.

Looking at South Africa, where 1.5% of the land mass under irrigation requires 63% of the country’s available freshwater to produce 30% of our crop yield, PR alone will not save these farmers – should a tug of war over water spill over into their fields.

Yet only 12% of our land is considered arable and only 3% abundant for crop farming, with 69% of South Africa’s surface area given over to grazing and livestock farming. Of course, the budding, better-off population demands more animal and fish proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables, exacerbating demand and supply complexities.

Light at the end of the causeway

While farmers grapple with higher input costs and expected yields on smaller tracts of arable land using less water and harmful chemicals, they are also challenged to rethink old farming methods and tools – ears close to the ground, so as not to miss news of a tested or proven novelty.

Globalisation has brought to our shores the definite advantages of technology and farming practice knowledge transfer to the benefit of local agricultural industries.

Water-wise agriculture

‘New’ farming models, such as terracing and reforestation to combat soil erosion and improve carbon sinking, improved weather forecasting and insurance, conservation and no-tillage farming, wetland restoration, co-operative small-scale farming practices, animal manure biogas fuel generation and repopulation of mono-culture grassland, are begging local attention by virtue of their proven commercial and environmental benefits.

Innovations in soil and water regeneration, seed and fertisliser, and irrigation technologies will be reviewed in depth in the next issue – to see where and how we may be missing the boat that’s certainly out there!

Source: Igor Shildermanov’s chapter “World fresh water resources” in Peter H. Gleck (editor) 1991, Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s fresh Water Resources. (Numbers are rounded)
Source: Igor Shildermanov’s chapter “World fresh water resources” in Peter H. Gleck (editor) 1991, Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s fresh Water Resources. (Numbers are rounded)