5.2 Key Adaptation Sector - Agriculture


The agricultural sector is a key component of the South African national economy. While the direct contributions to GDP and employment are less than 5% and approximately 13% respectively, its full contribution, with multipliers, comprises up to 12% of GDP and 30% of national employment. Potential adverse impacts of climate change on food production, agricultural and subsistence livelihoods, rural nutrition and food security in South Africa are significant policy concerns. Furthermore, agriculture is a relatively significant source of greenhouse gas emissions with enteric fermentation and manure management accounting for over 20 million tons of CO2-eq emissions in 2000 (approximately 4.6% of total net emissions), with cropland accounting for over 17 million tons of CO2-eq emissions (approximately 3.7% of total net emissions).

Climate change impacts on the agriculture sector include, among others –

  • Agriculture is the largest consumer of water (for irrigation) and is vulnerable to changes in water availability, increased water pollution (particularly from toxic algal or bacterial blooms) and soil erosion linked to more intense rainfall events. Intensively irrigated agriculture uses more than 50% of South Africa’s water, and is thus at risk due to both increased evapo-transpiration and competition from urban and other water uses.

  • There is sufficient evidence to confidently predict that yields for certain crops will increase in some areas and decrease in others, while certain previously climatically unsuitable areas for specific crops will become suitable and vice-versa. Current maize production areas in the west of the country could become unsuitable for maize production due to increased rainfall variability. Marginal land will become prone to reduced yields and crop failure because of diminished soil productivity and land degradation. Evidence also suggests that small-scale and urban homestead dry-land farmers are most vulnerable, and large-scale irrigated production is least vulnerable to projected climate change, given sufficient water supply for irrigation.

  • Secondary and indirect impacts of climate change, such as increases in pest and disease infestations (e.g. changes in the distribution and abundance of vectors and ectoparasites) or enhanced soil erosion, may in specific circumstances become more important than direct or primary impacts, as may tertiary impacts such as losing (or gaining) a competitive edge against other countries for agricultural export commodities, trade protection and barriers.

  • Overgrazing, desertification, natural climate variability, and bush encroachment are among the most serious problems facing rangelands. External stressors such as climate change, economic change, shifts in agricultural production and land use may further negatively impact the productivity of these regions and deepen pre-existing vulnerability. It is also shown that Intensive livestock production systems are vulnerable to increasing demands and costs associated with thermal stress reduction, water use and pressure to contain greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Climate change (including increased atmospheric carbon) may complicate the existing problems of bush encroachment and invasive alien species in rangelands and rising atmospheric CO2 levels may be increasing the cover of shrubs and trees in grassland and savanna with consequent disruption of existing productive activities such as cattle farming.

  • International climate change measures have started affecting South Africa’s agricultural export products, through shifts in the preferences of consumers, particularly in the EU, away from purchasing of carbon intensive products. The term “food miles” is used to refer to the distance food is transported from the point of production to the point of consumption, and is increasingly being used as a carbon emission label for food products.

In response to these challenges to the agricultural sector, South Africa will –

  1. Assess and investigate appropriate and country specific adaptation options in relation to their costs and associated environmental risk and support the agricultural industry's proactive efforts to exploit new agricultural potential and opportunities (new areas, new crops, etc.) and reduce the impacts on existing potential (crop switches, etc.).

  2. Invest and improve on its research capabilities in relation to investigating and implementing water and nutrient conservation technologies, developing climate resistant crop varieties (crop diversification) and creating a suitable database on greenhouse gases emissions that is specific to the agricultural sector and in line with the National Atmospheric Emission Inventory (see 9.2.3).

  3. Investigate short, medium and long term adaptation scenarios for the agriculture sector. Strategies and policies supporting this sector could usefully be informed by such considerations. Further supporting conservation agriculture, promoting the practise of conservation tillage, and initiating country wide organic farming pilot projects.

  4. Use early warning systems to assist with timely early warnings of adverse weather and the possibility of related pest and disease occurrence whilst also providing up to date information and decision support tools to assess the vulnerability of farmers and inform on-farm management decisions.

  5. Invest in education and awareness programmes in rural areas and link these to agricultural extension activities to enable both subsistence and commercial producers to understand, respond and adapt to the challenges of climate change. 


economic incentives for landowners

It is important
to emphasise the importance of economic incentives and instruments and the opportunity they afford when trying to resolve potential tensions between land owners and conservationists. For instance when land has agricultural value but agricultural development is prohibited or restricted in the name of environmental degradation mitigation/conservation - compensation of forgone agricultural revenues should be considered or other environmentally friendly revenue-generating uses of the land be incentivised using economic incentives or tools.


Key Adaptation Sector – Agriculture
Investigate short, medium and long term adaptation scenarios for the agriculture sector. Strategies and policies supporting this sector could usefully be informed by such considerations. Further supporting conservation agriculture, promoting the practice of conservation tillage, and initiating country wide organic farming pilot project

In addition to this section we need to use approaches such as stewardship when working with landowners/farmers, to ensure natural vegetation is also secured across farm landscapes which can create connectivity across the landscape. Through stewardship management practices should also be adopted that are sustainable such as the suggested conservation agriculture. This means that the connected landscape can provide adaptation benefits for biodiversity and conserve ecosystem services whilst better land practices can assist with better yields ;improved soil nutrition, secure pollinators, reduce emissions from fertilizer use (which also assists mitigation and reduces water pollution such as the suggested organic farming) etc