“Global warming” or “climate change” are terms that seem to be coming up more and more frequently as the world continues to experience various shifts in weather conditions, as well as natural disasters such as the melting of the polar ice caps. Simply put, global warming refers to the rise in the planet’s overall temperature caused primarily by the increased amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere – something for which humans are responsible. Essentially, the higher the amount of GHGs, the warmer the planet becomes. This will, of course, have a range of effects on different aspects of life, namely farming, most are which will be negative. We take a closer look at how global warming is set to change the face of farming, specifically in South Africa.
As mentioned, global warming is as a result of there being an elevated amount of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere. GHGs are a range of naturally occurring atmospheric gases that play an important role in the continued existence of life on Earth by trapping the sun’s heat on our planet. Over the years, human action such as the burning of fossil fuels, as well as increasing industrialisation, have led to these rising amounts of GHGs. Carbon dioxide and water vapour are the main gases, but it’s the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels (coal and oil) are burned for energy that seems to be negatively impacting the world’s climate the most. The more GHGs there are in the atmosphere, the more heat is retained, resulting in the planet becoming warmer. In the past, dramatic and sudden changes in the temperature make-up of the world has led to catastrophic extinction events, such as the dying out of dinosaurs. Many species are unable to adapt fast enough to the rapid changes and as a result, disappear.
If the amount of GHGs continue to rise as fossil fuels continue to be burned and deforestation continues (this also affects climate change), it is predicted that South Africa’s coastal regions will increase in temperature by 3-4 ̊C by the year 2100, with the interiors increasing by 6-7 ̊C. The result: a much hotter and drier South Africa (in most parts).
So this means that water will be the most affected
A warmer, drier South Africa will see significant changes occurring in rainfall patterns and timings, as well as with evaporation levels. Increased water evaporation will take place as temperatures continue to rise, leading to depleted amounts of water being available and the development of drought. By the 2080s, annual precipitation may decrease by up to 30% in Southern Africa. Soil is also left salty following prolonged evaporation, limiting the amount of plant growth that will be able to take place in that specific place. Other areas may experience an increase in rainfall (due to the high levels of evaporation), something that can lead to flash-flooding and in turn, the destruction of previously farmable land. Due to the vital role that water plays in farming and agriculture, it’s easy to see how it being affected by global warming is sure to cause a knock-on effect on the other elements dependent on it.
What does this mean for farming then?
There are a number of adverse effects that a lack of water will have on the South African farming industry:
An increase in arid land
In order for land to be arable, it needs to receive a certain amount of hydration – without adequate water, land that was once farmable becomes dry and unable to support growth.
Lower crop yield
Most of the crops (maize, wheat etc) planted by the farmers are sensitive to high temperatures, causing many of them to diminish over time. This is in addition to the fact that the land itself is becoming less arable, ultimately leading to fewer crops being able to grow from the start. It’s predicted that by 2050, per capita cereal production in South Africa will be 10% lower than it was in the year 2000.
Increase in unsustainable farming
As productivity of crops continue to diminish, so farmers will feel pressure to try and cultivate land that is in fact unsuitable for farming. In turn, this can then lead to farming in an unsustainable manner, something that can be potentially damaging to the biodiversity of the region. For example, the increasing heat will bring about the need for increased water requirements for livestock, eventually leading to overgrazing near water points. Overgrazing can lead to land degradation and endangerment of biodiversity.
A lower crop yield can then have a socio-economic impact on certain communities:
Small-scale farmers are likely to be the most adversely affected by global warming as they are the most vulnerable when it comes to crop shortages. Farming is their livelihood and poor crop yields can lead to further poverty.
Food security (especially for those in rural areas) can be threatened, leaving more people and livestock hungry, and likely to die from malnutrition and disease.
The export industry can be greatly affected by low crop productivity, with less fruit and wine being readily available to ship to other countries. This can have a negative impact on the country’s economy.
Global warming seems to be an inevitability facing not only South Africans, but people from across the globe. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced, the earth’s temperature will continue to rise, having dire results on the farming industry and essentially, on peoples’ livelihoods as well. More sustainable farming methods and products need to be adopted, as well as the promotion of the idea of developing more crops that can better tolerate high temperatures. Global warming is a very real threat to South Africa’s farming industry and one that shouldn’t be underestimated.