Climate resilience in the agriculture sector

Nedbank’s Maluta Netshaulu discusses aspects of a climate-resilient agriculture sector, including sustainable practices, technology adoption and innovative solutions.

JEANETTE CLARK: Climate resilience is defined as the capacity of social, economic and ecosystems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance in the world’s existing climate. This is according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest 2022 summary document for policymakers. In this podcast, our last in a series on agriculture, we speak to Nedbank’s Maluta Netshaulu, senior manager: agriculture, client value proposition, about climate resilience in our agriculture sector.

Maluta, what in your opinion are the components of a climate-resilient agriculture sector in South Africa?

MALUTA NETSHAULU: To answer your question, we’ve got three components that speak to climate resilience. The first one is sustainable production practices, second is technology and innovation adoption, and then last but not least is sustainable solutions.

JEANETTE CLARK: Right. Can we dive into sustainable production practices first, what you have seen change locally and even internationally, if you want to use some examples over the last couple of years? I’m specifically interested to hear your thoughts on regenerative farming practices.

MALUTA NETSHAULU: For the longest time I think farmers applied conventional production practices, reaping the soil and applying tons of fertiliser and a lot of water without much regard in terms of their resource availability and the impact of the inputs they’re putting into the soil.

But over the years, because of scarcity of resources and because of pressure that has been coming from the international community and consumers, we’ve seen a radical shift away from those practices into more sustainable practices that promote sustainable production practices in terms of ecologically friendly practices, using less harmful material into more organic matter that is much more friendly in terms of the soil, in terms of the water, as well as the environment.

So farming has now really changed, but it’s also going into that direction. I’m trying to say that not everyone has moved that way, but we’ve seen a lot of farmers shifting that way because it’s no longer about profitability; it’s also about being able to be sustainable in achieving those outcomes.

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

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

In a sense, while they’re doing those preparations and clearing the land from the previous season, that 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 do intercropping, whether we have maize and in between, the rows, cover crops, or immediately after harvesting they also make sure that they don’t really clear the land, but then they allow [the planting of] other crops over whatever remains on the land, which really promotes, in terms of the ecological balance, making sure that to whatever is there, things that are living in the land, there is no disruption, and the water content of the soil remains good.

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

JEANETTE CLARK: Your colleague, John Hudson, drove the point home quite strongly about farmers here in South Africa having to do more with less. How does technology and innovation adoption assist in this regard, also helping to bolster climate resilience?

MALUTA NETSHAULU: I think John did put it well. His statement was around ‘if you think agriculture and technology don’t go together, you’re quite wrong’. That’s what we’ve seen in agriculture. For example, gone are the days when [no technology is used], except in a very smallholder-type of setup.

But when it comes to commercial and even the mega-farmers, from the use of tractors, highly sophisticated pieces of machinery, the use of irrigation systems, the use of things like IoT [the Internet of Things] devices, remote-sensing, aerial and drone imagery and all those things, and precision farming – those are very sophisticated technology systems that are being used on farms to help the farmer know what’s happening on [their] farm. And be able to make better decisions in terms of where to apply what, based on what data has been received. If it’s aerial imagery, you are able to spot where there is stress on your farm; where you need [to pay] attention.

Some of the feedback that you’re getting involves things that you cannot see with the naked eye. So being able to act based on that data, I think, is key, because by so doing you are then able to mitigate loss of income, or you [are] having to act when it’s a bit too late; it might mean that you need to apply more in terms of corrective measures.

That’s what technology has done for the sector. It has now become such that it’s normal for farmers to be using this technology just from their tractors – [whether it’s] a John Deere or Massey Ferguson, or Case, for example, they can just check from their screen while they are working on the land, either planting or harvesting – to see what is going on, what is the feedback they’re getting from the sensors of that machinery, and be able to act up upon it. And even at that exact moment or afterwards to be able to see and say, oh, this is what I managed to harvest on this field, specific to that field, what are the reasons for that – and then be able to plan accordingly.

So that is what technology and innovation adoption have come to [mean] when it comes to agriculture.

JEANETTE CLARK: Well, I see that even agriculture can’t escape big data, and I guess it helps a lot as well to understand the weather patterns and to plan for that. But it doesn’t always have to be high tech. There are other sustainable farming interventions that can assist in helping with certain weather events, or weather changes. Can you give me some examples of this?

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

So these innovations that are out there, for example shade-netting or hail nets as they are also known that farmers, especially those who operate in areas where they’re very susceptible to those types of natural hazards, and they’re farming with very high types of cultivars of produce. Like in the citrus space, we are talking soft citrus, or in the wine space or table-grape space, or even [about] macadamias for that matter, they are able to install those solutions which are also not cheap, to be honest, but they do allow them the opportunity to sort of combat or protect their high-value orchards from those natural hazards.

They can also increase the performance of those orchards by 20%, reduce water usage, reduce fertiliser or nitrogen applications. So at the end of the day, they help farmers to use those innovations almost like insurance, especially when it comes to tree crops, insurance is very expensive. Most people can’t afford it and most people don’t take it. So they end up using such innovations like shade netting to serve as insurance and also help them protect [valuable] production and orchards.

Something that it also helps is like cross-pollination. If you’ve got seeded table grapes on the other side, adjacent to a seedless [variety], and you’ve a contract with, say, Woolworths or Checkers, for the seedless [variety], and you need to deliver at the end of that season, if that other seeded [variety] sort of cross-pollinates your seedless one, then it’s going to result in you losing the contract, which may ripple into other issues for you in terms of market access and so forth. So, by having that net, you sort of mitigate that risk of cross-pollination and the birds eating your crops and so on.

So it’s a very, very good example of what sustainable solutions are out there that farmers are adopting, and they are seeing value in terms of their operations.

JEANETTE CLARK: You mentioned climate change, and one way of combating 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 a climate-change topic, or is it sometimes just survival because they can’t necessarily count on their electricity all the time?

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

So it’s come to a point where we’ve seen a lot of farmers adopting renewable energy solutions like solar PV [photovoltaics], for example, where they will install that to make sure that they mitigate the risk of downtime because of those things that I mentioned.

So it’s true. We’ve seen that quite a lot. Even from Nedbank, we’ve seen a lot of requests for funding of renewable energy installations for our farmers, just to make sure that they’re resilient against such risks as load shedding, for example.

JEANETTE CLARK: So climate resilience is a topic that is closely tied to climate change. But even without bringing that into the picture, southern Africa has always had high rainfall variability. Even in what we would consider a normal year farmers would benefit from boosting their climate resilience for the sake of food production and the South African economy.

We have been speaking today to Maluta Netshaulu, senior manager: agriculture, client value proposition, at Nedbank.

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Brought you by Nedbank Agri. 


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