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The clear business case for sustainable agriculture

Sustainability is not only about humanity adapting to changes and finding ways to fulfil the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations; it also provides significant financial benefits to farmers.

This was the resounding takeout from a robust panel discussion recently held on the Nation in Conversation stage at Nampo Cape. Facilitated by Herman de Kock, Executive Head of Sales and Service: Nedbank Commercial Banking, the highly skilled panel included Dr Johann Strauss from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture; Dr Tara Southey, founder and CEO of TerraClim, a precision agriculture company; Fanie Ferreira, CEO of the Milk Producers’ Organisation (MPO); and Shelly Fuller, Sustainable Agriculture Programme Manager at WWF-SA.

Financial viability

Each panel member fully supported the move to sustainability and referred to numerous examples of farmers benefiting financially from being good stewards of the resources under their care. Ferreira, who also recently announced the winner of the MPO Nedbank Stewardship Award for 2023, succinctly asserted that sustainability means profitability for dairy farmers.

“This year, all of our finalists mentioned that the financial viability of farming sustainably is the greatest, most immediate benefit. Most dairy farmers in the MPO are part of a programme to become more sustainable and, while they understand that the initial investment is high and the journey can take five to 10 years, they’re already reaping the benefits of working with rather than against nature.”

Fuller agrees: ‘Our Conservation Champions programme is the result of a partnership of more than 20 years between Nedbank, the WWF and South Africa’s (SA) wine industry. The partnership began because the vineyards are in a biodiversity hotspot and our aim is to prevent them from jeopardising the unique flora kingdom of the Western Cape. The SA wine industry is now known as a market leader, with 95% of our wines certified as sustainably produced under the industry’s environmental certification scheme, the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW).

The Conservation Champion programme recognises those farmers who go even further in their commitment to biodiversity-friendly and regenerative farming practices, conserving their natural areas and continually improving their water and energy efficiencies. One has to mention that, even after experiencing the worst drought in decades and an ever-changing climate, most of the farms that are part of the Conservation Champion Programme have been able to maintain their productivity and their businesses are growing from strength to strength.’

Strauss, who leads the research on conservation agriculture, a priority project of the Western Cape’s SmartAgri Plan, says that the farmers who have switched from conventional to sustainable farming saved the Western Cape approximately R440-million in environmental damage between 2002 and 2020. “The three building blocks of sustainable farming – minimal soil disturbance, biodiversity through crop rotation and covering the soil with living crops or crop residues – are simple and cost-effective in the long run.

“The result is an integrated system that ensures greater soil resilience, thus reducing water and fertiliser usage, water runoff and soil erosion; greater yield consistency; resilience to drought periods; and reduced capital and operating costs. Interestingly, on farms where these principles are applied, there is evidence that the soil is building resilience if you compare the crop yields and recovery periods following the significant drought periods in 2015, 2017 and 2019.”

Technology is a major enabler

Another point that the panel agreed on is the role of innovation and big data in enabling farmers to produce more with fewer resources and farming sustainably.

Southey believes that the use of data is more important now than ever before in making decisions and plans to adapt and mitigate climate change and market shifts. She founded TerraClim while conducting research for her PhD in viticulture and climate change and discovered there was inadequate climatic data. She now focuses on building an integrated climate, geographical information system, remote sensing and crop database to provide farmers and policymakers with this essential information.

“In partnership with Metos SA, we now have an additional 200 weather stations, strategically placed across the Western Cape, which constantly measure while TerraClim collates multiple factors, such as hourly temperatures, solar radiation and hydrology profiles to mention a few,” she says.

“TerraClim integrates multiple weather station networks to fill in the gaps to build a robust, complete set of data that is invaluable in analysing the changing environment on an hourly basis. This in turn helps farmers in the region understand the changes that their crops are undergoing and thus make informed decisions to adapt.”

Ferreira agrees that technology is a major factor in improving yields and making educated decisions. “When I started working in the dairy industry in the 1980s, there were more than 28 000 dairy farmers in South Africa. There are now less than 900, but they produce more milk with fewer cows than those thousands of farmers in the 80s. Because of technology, specifically genetics in this case, each cow is producing up to 50 litres of milk per day, as opposed to five to 10 litres of milk per day back then. There are so many innovations these days, such as cow management systems, digitised milking parlour systems and genomics innovations that drive better breeding outcomes – all of which give dairy farmers the edge to maximise their yields and provide their animals with better care.”

We all have our part to play

Fuller is a passionate advocate of farming sustainably, which she views as moving towards a more nurturing practice.

“Farmers easily understand the benefits of working with Mother Nature – almost like a business partner – and their role as a custodian for the services that nature provides.”

“Within this context and considering the ever-increasing input costs, the profitability factor is making the decision to move to sustainable farming easier and I’m happy to report that that is more important than the scorecard for them,” she says.

“But it’s not just about what farmers need to do. I see the public less as consumers and more as supporters: With our every purchase, we can choose to support sustainability or not. It’s really that simple.”