Droughts and increased water risks are the new normal in Africa – and many farmers and roleplayers in the agricultural sector have already started to adapt and innovate.
But more innovation is needed to help build resilience in agriculture, especially given rapid urbanisation. This must be done in a way that takes local realities into consideration, said Prof Danie Brink, dean of the Faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University (SU).
“The face of agriculture and its future prospects, including in an urban setting, looks very different in low-income and high-income countries," Brink said. “It matters if you live in Lagos (Nigeria), New Jersey (USA) or Groningen (The Netherlands) when we talk about innovations for the future."
Brink was one of the guest speakers participating in a workshop on urbanisation and climate-smart agriculture that recently took place at SU. This interdisciplinary workshop, titled “Skyscrapers and sky-gardens: perspectives on urbanisation and climate-smart agriculture", was organised and hosted by Dr Bianke Loedolff. This was done as part of the first postdoctoral conference of its kind in Southern Africa.
Loedolff, a researcher in SU's Institute for Plant Biotechnology, highlighted that drought caused by climate variability is already one of the main concerns for food and nutritional security. Drought damages almost half of our crop and animal production in Africa.
“Given the 'hidden' footprints (carbon, water and ecological) of many our crops, alternative crops should now be considered," she argued. Currently, the major crops produced in South Africa are maize and wheat. Both these crops have large water footprints compared to pulses like soybean and pigeon pea. “It takes 900 litres of water to produce a kilogram of maize. For soybean, you need 250 litres to produce a kilogram of crops and for pigeon pea only 50 litres. Are these not the kind of crops we should be looking at?" she asked.
Brink highlighted the fact that 50% of the world's global population now live in urban areas, with an annual growth of 65 million people in urban centres. By 2050, it is expected that up to 75% of the world's citizens will live in urban centres. “Millions of people are moving to the cities and towns and have the expectations of better lives. Yet, urbanisation has not necessarily improved the lives of people in Africa the same way it has in Asia," Brink said.
Sub-Saharan Africa is regarded as the world's fastest urbanising region. South Africa's urbanisation trends are higher than that of the Southern African regional average. South Africa is already more urbanised than rural, with 64.3% of the country's population (34.17 million people) living in urban areas.
“The rise of urban and peri-urban agriculture in this context of urbanisation and climate change offers new opportunities for changing gender roles, new agricultural value chains and niche markets," Brink said. “But there are many knowledge gaps to be filled, including policy gaps and challenges related to technologies."
Many of the advanced urban agricultural technologies currently being developed are not yet feasible in the African context. Rooftop agriculture, for instance, requires high start-up costs, there are liability and maintenance concerns, and crops are often produced in extreme growing conditions. Controlled environment agriculture is also mostly high-tech, energy and capital intensive, and out of reach of most countries. “In most cases, the high-tech production option is still the least viable and making the least impact (to food security)," Brink indicated.
Prof Jennifer Thomson, an emeritus professor in microbiology at the University of Cape Town's Molecular and Cell Biology Department, discussed the possibilities of developing drought-tolerant maize varieties. Thompson is the current president of the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD). “Finding water stress tolerant genes and combinations that enables plants to be drought tolerant would be a game-changer in developing crops in Africa," she said.
Prof Jill Farrant, also based at UCT's Molecular and Cell Biology Department, discussed the mechanisms that enable certain plants to have a survival strategy during droughts with potentially huge prospects for agriculture. Farrant, an A-rated researcher and DST/NRF SARChI research chair, is considered a leader in her field of study.
There are only 135 plant species worldwide typically growing in extreme environments that can tolerate 95% of water loss, she pointed out. “Once watered or after rain falls, these plants rejuvenate within only one to three days. They show extreme genetic drought-tolerant abilities that could potentially be replicated in key crops growing in drought-stricken areas," she said.
Farrant believes understanding how these resurrection plants switch genes “on" and “off" could hold the key for developing new drought-tolerant crops. “The reality is clear: Given that the bulk of farming in Africa is dryland agriculture, we need to adapt our crops to survive in hotter and drier conditions given the changing climate," she said.
Willem Botes, research lead in SU's Plant Breeding Laboratory (SU-PBL), said food supply challenges will continue to steer commercial agriculture towards technological innovations. Botes is a renowned plant breeder involved in the DST-Grain SA National Wheat Breeding Platform.
“New cultivars and genetic materials that are more tolerant of water stress are of key importance to ensure that the agricultural sector remains vibrant," Botes said. “However, new cultivars for commercial use are not developed overnight - it takes 15 to 20 years to establish. Consequently, we also have to look at how we use technology during production."
“We need to focus on our main staple crops and find ways to intensify production in a more climate-smart way," he concluded.
For media enquiries
Dr Bianke Loedolff
Institute for Plant Biotechnology
Faculty of Agrisciences
Tel: +27 21 808 3834