The agricultural sector has a key role to play in a green economy, which incorporates both an environmental and social dimension, notes Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) senior researcher and/or leader of the Agricultural Green Economy Project Dr Constansia Musvoto.
“The sheer size of the sector, in terms of land area and use of resources such as water, its impacts on the environment and its direct role in the well-being of people, places it at the centre of the green economy globally and in South Africa,” explained the CSIR report on ‘Agriculture and the Green Economy in South Africa’ launched on Thursday.
Musvoto explained that the CSIR compiled the report, which focused on crop-based agriculture initiatives in a product context, as the green economy was an emerging concept and, as such, there were no guidelines for attaining its ideals.
The report’s focus on crop-based agriculture was dictated by resources that were available to conduct the study and did not imply that livestock farming had no role to play in a green economy, explained Musvuto.
“South Africa’s commitments to the development of a green economy spell out priorities in broad terms [therefore] there is no detail to guide implementation. The report seeks to contribute to closing the gaps in the information required to guide South Africa’s transition to an agricultural green economy,” she advised.
The report identified the context, principles, opportunities and challenges facing crop-based agriculture with regard to its contribution to the country’s green economy initiatives.
With the global population expected to reach nine-billion by 2050, demand for food and other commodities was on the rise; therefore, the report stressed that it was imperative that the efficiency of agricultural systems improved.
The agricultural sector also had to investigate how best to meet demand for increased outputs while reducing its impact on the environment, thereby, decoupling agricultural production from resource use and environmental degradation.
However, an assessment of the role of agriculture in a green economy also needed to consider a number of key social factors in an integrated and holistic manner, including greening agricultural practices.
The report advised that greening of agriculture could be achieved through the application of several agricultural production techniques and practices, such as conservation agriculture, which aimed to sustain production through enhancing the resource base and environment; and organic farming, a production management system that aimed to promote and enhance ecosystem health, and the bio-economy, which encompassed the production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into food, feed, biobased products and bioenergy.
As such, a key element of greening agriculture was the reduction of waste and inefficiency in the whole agriculture production and consumption chain, from crop losses owing to pests and hazards, to food waste in storage, distribution, marketing and at household level.
“If the agriculture sector is to support a green economy, the sector has to be in tune with social, economic and environmental conditions to be sustainable and deliver planned benefits in the face of changes in these variables,” the CSIR commented.
However, to do so, flexible and responsive legislation and policies, which considered the all-encompassing nature of a green economy and linkages to different sectors, were required.
There was currently no legislation or policy framework at a national level on agriculture and the green economy, but the enabling environment for the green economy in South Africa was provided for at the level of plans, strategies and programmes.
Many provincial governments had also already taken the initiative and developed green economy plans or policies, while agriculture legislation and policies of potential relevance to the concept existed, for example, the “somewhat dated” Conservation of Agriculture Resources Act.
While the green economy concept was relatively new, agriculture was an established sector. Musvoto noted that agricultural growth was a proven driver of poverty reduction, with 13.9% of poor households in South Africa having access to land that could be used for agriculture. Therefore, there was a need to support smallholder farmers to increase their role in food production and natural resource stewardship.
Many developing countries, particularly in Africa, faced the challenges associated with poverty, unemployment and degradation of the natural resource base that underpinned livelihoods and economic activity.
As a result, with its long-term focus on improving human well-being, reducing social inequity, safeguarding natural resources and creating long-term economic opportunities, the CSIR said the green economy concept appeared to be a particularly relevant response.
Given that poverty disproportionately affected rural areas in South Africa and other developing countries, the predominantly rural nature of agriculture is particularly pertinent. However, Musvoto noted that agriculture was not a “silver bullet”.
For agriculture to support a green economy there had to be alignment between the objectives and practices of agriculture and green economy principles.
The critical factors for agriculture to contribute to a green economy included an appropriate enabling environment, partnerships for facilitating coordinated and integrated approaches towards a green economy, adequate financial resources, infrastructure, skills and information and the need for appropriate incentives.
But a green economy also had to be flexible and capable of adapting to changing conditions by understanding and responding appropriately to the risks and opportunities associated with changing climatic and other global conditions, such as trade arrangements, consumer tastes and preference patterns.
Further, there was a need for a diversified economy that was not solely reliant on primary agricultural production and the export of low-value commodities, but also conducted processing and value addition throughout the value chain, comprising of secondary industry and tertiary sectors.
The CSIR stressed that, therefore, the development of a green economy supported by agriculture required an integrated approach, which also needed to be developed and sustained on the basis of sound and relevant information.
“Research will need to identify gaps in information and knowledge and develop specific interventions in the social, economic and environmental domains required for establishing and sustaining an agricultural green economy in South Africa,” advised the report.